Discover stunning Himalayans circuits with our destination expert Ms. Reetwika Banerjee
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I had been planning a trip to Arunachal Pradesh since 2007. But due to some or the other reason, could never make it. This year, I was like, determined. Being a proud owner of ICOTY23, why not plan a self-drive to the land of rising sun? Probably Universe had this plan for me and that is why for a globe-trotter like me, this circuit was left out till date. Who knows! In the month of February, finally we marched on a road trip to Arunachal Pradesh.
Since Arunachal Pradesh shares international borders with Tibet & China, it is a Protected Area and needs Inner Line Permit (ILP) even for Indian citizens who are non-residents of the seven sister states of North Eastern India. Earlier the process was completely manual and quite cumbersome. One had to obtain it from their Kolkata or Guwahati offices. But now, Arunachal Pradesh government has made the process really quick and prompt. Online applications are allowed through their website. Though it took us multiple rounds of document verification, the e-permit was granted within 7 working days which is valid for 2 months from the date of issue. Please remember to upload the name and contact number of the owner of one of the hotels in Arunachal Pradesh where you are planning to stay. This is diligently verified before issuing any ILP.
Our end-to-end road trip (8N/9D) was planned like this:
Kolkata – Siliguri – Guwahati – Tezpur – Bhalukpong – Dirang – Sela Pass – Tawang – Bomdila – Balemu – Guwahati – Siliguri – Kolkata
It took us 3 days to reach the entry point of Arunachal Pradesh, i.e. Bhalukpong from Kolkata on road, driving at a reasonable average speed of 45kmph covering approx. 1400km in 32hrs. Hotel rates are quite high compared to the amenities in West Kameng circuit of Arunachal Pradesh.
Day 1: 600km (Kolkata – Nabadwip – Siliguri)
Early morning by seven in the morning, we started our journey from Kolkata. The road condition between Kolkata Airport and Krishnanagar via NH34 is too bad, so we preferred a slightly deviant route via Nabadwip and met NH34 near Bethuadahari. Then we drove straight to Siliguri via Berhampore, Maldah, Raiganj, Kishanganj and Islampur. Other than a small strip between Raiganj and Dalkhola market, the overall road is excellent. In between the road passes through Kishanganj (Bihar) which is notorious for dacoit attacks but in the recent past, there have not been any such reported cases. However, it is advisable to cross this stretch (approx. 50km, 40min) before sunset. We reached Siliguri by 6pm, taking intermediate breaks for snacks, lunch and tea at the roadside joints.
Day 2: 475km (Siliguri – Sevoke – Bongaigaon – Guwahati)
Next day we checked out early because we had to cross the elephant corridor of Dooars before lunch. There are two roads to Guwahati from Siliguri. One that starts from Fulbari via Jalpaiguri, the other is a little longer, via Sevoke. We chose the latter as the scenic beauty is incomparable. By 12 noon, we had reached Assam border, crossing Jaldapara, Chapramari, Hasimara and other beautiful spots of Dooars. On way, we also crossed a road that leads to Bhutan.
After a refreshing lunch break at Bongaigaon, we headed for Guwahati via the same road. This part of the road was very boring. Other than a few oil refineries, there was nothing worth to watch out. Nevertheless, fuel price dropped drastically in Assam. It was a long journey indeed; almost 12hrs. By 8pm, we reached Guwahati. Our accommodation was booked at a homestay near Kamakhya Hill. The broad views of Brahmaputra River from our balcony washed off all the weariness at one go.
Day 3: 240km (Guwahati – Tezpur – Nameri – Bhalukpong)
The upcoming drive was a little easier than the earlier two trips. We began with a lazy morning and headed to Bhalukpong via Tezpur. The city traffic of Guwahati took us almost an hour but after that it was a butter-smooth drive until Tezpur. In between, the rocky mountainous terrain of Meghalaya and Assam was eye-catching. Even in the month of February, we were sweating. It was quite refreshing to have coconut water on way somewhere near Nagaon.
By 3pm we had reached Tezpur. It was a late lunch break. Spending almost an hour enjoying local delicacies, we geared off to Bhalukpong. The intermediate road (approx. 50km) was through Nameri National Park which was again an elephant corridor. The road was superb and it took us hardly an hour to reach Arunachal border. There was a big entry gate welcoming us to Bhalukpong on the other side. It is here where your ILPs will be checked if you are entering Arunachal Pradesh through West Kameng district. Since we were self-driving our own car, the verification was very quick and tourist friendly.
Luckily, there was no elephant sighting on way. By 5.30pm, we reached our hotel. It was located just beside the Circuit House facing Jiabhoroli River and Nameri National Park. Right from our balcony we were lucky to see wild tuskers grazing on the river shore. What a mesmerizing sunset it was! Our welcome to the land of rising sun happened in a style.
Day 4: 150km (Bhalukpong – Dirang)
Our first destination in Arunachal Pradesh was Bhalukpong. There is nothing much to do here other than visiting Tipi Orchidarium enroute Dirang. It was a beautiful hilly road running in parallel to the Kameng River. (The same river is known by its name Jiabhoroli in Assam). We took lunch break at Sessa, a tiny hamlet beside a superfluous waterfall. Temperature was sharply falling as we soared up the turns. By three in the afternoon, we reached Dirang. It’s a small river valley, surrounded by brown hills on all sides. Altitude would be approx. 5000ft. Not many good hotels to stay, you may expect similar budget accommodations offered by most of the owners.
The hill station has gained prominence because of its strategic location. It is more of an overnight tourist destination for those heading to Tawang. There is a hanging bridge, UNESCO listed heritage village, Yak Research Centre and an old Tibetan fort to spend some time at Dirang. Our next destination was Tawang via Sela Pass, so we decided to rest at the hotel than to run around. The view from our room fully compensated our decision.
Day 5: 140km (Dirang – Sela Pass – Tawang)
It was a big day. The stellar destination Tawang, via Sela Pass, was beckoning us. We heard that if it snows up at Sela, tourist cabs are not allowed by Indian Army to pass through. So we needed a bit of luck. Morning news brought us a sunny update and we started for our dream destination Tawang. The road was good but constantly scaling higher ever since we crossed Baisakhi. With dense clouds, there was hardly any visibility. Oxygen level was also sharply dipping as we could feel deficiency even sitting inside the car. One bend up, the dashboard detected sub-zero temperature and then in minutes we were all covered in snow.
Roadside signages were prominent for navigation and in half an hour we reached the Sela Top, 14000ft above mean sea level. Temperature was -3°C and a frosty wind pierced through our nerves. Beating all the climatic challenges, it was such a grand feeling! Trekking on car to Indo-Tibet border in itself gave me Goosebumps. And now I was standing right in front of that lofty gateway welcoming visitors to the district of Tawang. Finally, a long perceived dream that I had been nurturing since 15 years, got fulfilled.
Parking was not much of a hassle. There was a military canteen by the gigantic entry porch which served us hot tea and instant noodles. How refreshing could it be in that chilly breeze, cannot definitely be expressed in words! The BRO officials also offer prompt first-aid relief to any visitor suffering from acclimatization issues. Staying there for almost an hour, we headed to Tawang down the other side of the slope. We visited Sela Lake, Jainath Bridge and Jaswant Garh viewpoint. The day’s expedition to Sela came to a pleasant end.
A 20km segment of road between Jung village to Tawang was under construction and was quite a tough ride. By afternoon, we had reached the old Buddhist town of Tawang. It was Tibetan New Year the next day, so everyone was in a festive mood. We visited Upper Tawang viewpoint (altitude approx. 11000ft), Buddha Park, an old monastery and the local market, before retiring for the day. There are too many one-ways and no-entry roads in Tawang which was very perplexing for outsiders like us. Lack of proper traffic signage added to our confusion. Our room was booked at a decent hotel in Upper Tawang. Temperature dropped below 2°C at night. Oxygen level was also on the lower side here.
Day 6: 180km (Tawang – Sela Pass – Bomdila)
Return trip began from today. Our plan was to drive down to Bomdila, approx. 180km via Sela Pass. It is the headquarters of West Kameng district, perched at an altitude of approx. 8000ft. There is no alternative route from Tawang than to pass through Sela. We were little worried since it snowed at Sela Top last night. Thankfully, Indian Army allowed the outbound vehicles from Tawang to cross Sela; however, restrictions were imposed on the inbound traffic. We took a break at a local coffee shop in Zomdong Na village to warm us up for the ensuing high hill drive.
Today it was double the snow. Even the trees which were green yesterday appeared ice bathed. The octagonal snowflakes could be seen in naked eyes. The slopes were whitewashed. There was a waterfall by the roadside, which froze. Overnight, the complete area got covered under snow. And there was absolutely zero visibility on road for more than 20kms at an altitude of 14000ft. With steep cliff on one side and snow-capped slopes on the other, it was a drive to remember in this lifetime.
By six in the evening we reached Bomdila, shocked to discover that most of the hotels remain closed on the occasion of New Year celebrations. Due to off season trip, we did not do any prior booking at Bomdila. Somehow, we managed to get a room at one of the small hotels in middle market area through someone’s personal recommendation. It was quite an experience!
The Bomdila Monastery was just opposite to our hotel and we visited on foot. The entire edifice was beautifully decorated to make merry on Tibetan New Year. In the late evening after dinner, we went for a walk down the market but were shocked to realize sky-rocketing price of every single item. Other than some indigenous oranges, Silli Roti (local sweet bread) and a Monpa Jhola (tribal sling bag), we could not afford anything much here. Temperature was way below 5°C at midnight and it drizzled too. Nonetheless, because of the festive spirit in the air, we thoroughly enjoyed our overnight stay at this busy hill station.
Day 7: 260km (Bomdila – Balemu – Guwahati)
Ultimate disaster was waiting for us on this day. We had planned to reach Nalbari and bypass Guwahati. But due to some wrong navigational feature set on GPS, we were mistakenly headed to Balemu, a notorious village full of terrorists. It was once the epicentre of all the terror attacks that ruled West Kameng belt of Arunachal Pradesh. By the time we realized our lethal blunder, we were already in the middle of their forested territory.
There was hardly anyone around; the road traffic also steeply declined after Tenga Valley, as we drove further inside the jungle, crossing hairpin bends after bends. Other than a few human beings looking oddly at us, we did not encounter a single life in this entire stretch of 100km. GPS connection was totally lost. We ran deeper and deeper, with no ray of hope what lied ahead of us. Fortunately, we did not face any such jolt.
Surprisingly the road condition was relatively decent. After driving for almost 115km, we reached a forest check post and the guard on duty guided us the right path. We had come a long way from the desired Tezpur-Guwahati highway, approx. 150km off the track to Balemu. So, we had two choices at hand – a shorter forest road that leads to Nalbari where there are occasional elephant attacks and the other was to head back to Guwahati which was approx. 150km via a narrow state highway. We had enough adventure for the day and thus chose the second option.
Fuelling the tank at Assam border, we chilled at a rustic tea shop, gobbled some stinking pakodas and restarted our journey with new zest. The road was too congested with annoying two-way traffic. It was already dark by then. Evening lights on opposite vehicles were very disturbing. Speedometer could hardly cross 30kmph. It was almost ten at night when we reached Guwahati and crashed for the night.
Day 8: 475km (Guwahati – Jalpaiguri – Fulbari – Siliguri)
It was a very smooth but boring drive as expected. Nothing spectacular to look for except the tea gardens of Dooars after crossing Assam-Bengal border. The entire stretch here is elephant corridor. Since it was about to dusk, we had chosen to drive through Jalpaiguri-Fulbari road this time to avoid wildlife walkway, so it was even duller than our uphill drive. If you want to avoid afternoon forest drive, break at Malbazar for an overnight stay. Plenty of walk-in hotels are available in this belt.
Do not forget to fill the fuel tank at Assam border where the oil price is quite subsidized compared to WB. A large bill board placed by Assam Oil (by Indian Oil) calls that out too.
Day 9: 600km (Siliguri – Nabadwip – Kolkata)
The road was more or less good and similar experiences witnessed during our return trip as well. We preferred to take the route via Gouranga Setu in Nabadwip to avoid Krishnanagar traffic. However, the overall road experience in the Nadia region was equally bad on both the sides of the river. By 10pm we reached our home in Kolkata, with an utterly tired body and mind filled with mesmerizing visuals of Arunachal Pradesh.
Important Tips for a Self-Driving Road Trip to Arunachal Pradesh:-
- Get the ILP done online. It makes your experience better at the Arunachal entry point. For West Kameng district, the entry point is at Bhalukpong.
- Car tyre pressure will fluctuate due to frequent changes in altitude, air pressure and temperature. Check it daily and do the needful.
- Number of petrol pumps is quite less in this side of Arunachal Pradesh. Plan to fill up your tank before entering Bhalukpong and at Dirang.
- Don’t worry about tyre punctures. You have enough tyre repairing shops almost at every 10km.
- On your Sela expedition, in the Baishakhi to Jung stretch, be ready for an extremely low visibility drive. You’ll experience plenty of thick clouds. Enjoy it, don’t rush.
- Between Dirang and Baishakhi, you’ll experience very narrow roads at some places. Road condition is however good.
- In case, you are taking the Bomdila to Balemu route, you’ll encounter around 10 sharp hairpin bends. Be very careful.
- Snack options like momo, soup, pakoda, sandwich, noodles etc are pretty less in the roadside joints. They mainly offer rice based meals.
- If 50% of the road is covered with snow, don’t drive on that day. It gets slippery beyond imagination. Dangerous to drive for city drivers.
- Army run canteens and officials on duty are of great support during any kind of breakdown. They are well equipped with first aid, oxygen cylinders, frost bite relief, basic car repairing and other quick supports needed by city tourists. Surrender to them when in need. They are your best friend in this entire circuit.
Reetwika’s Travel Tip: For detailed information about the above places, visit the individual articles coming next on Tours and Journeys portal under Arunachal Pradesh category.