Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My impressions of Arunachal Pradesh

I visited Arunachal Pradesh last month. Travelling by road (no other option available presently) from Tezpur in Assam, I entered Arunachal at Bhalukpong and travelled to Tawang via Bomdila, sightseeing all along. From Tawang I travelled further up to Shungatser Lake and then returned to Tezpur along the same route.

At Sela Pass

Some of my observations / impressions about Arunachal Pradesh are as follows :

1) Arunachal is a land of mountains, hills, forests, rivers, streams, waterfalls, lakes and colorful flora. It could have been a much more popular tourist destination but due to poor infrastructure (bad roads, mainly) only a handful of intrepid tourists visit it. Owing to the long distances one has to travel on bad roads, both the duration and cost of transportation is relatively high which further deters tourists.

2) Due to absence of airports, there are no commercial flights to Arunachal. There used to be helicopter services by Pawan Hans (about Rs 3000 for a Guwahati to Tawang flight, one way) but after some recent fatal accidents, including one that killed the Chief Minister of Arunachal, these flights have been suspended.

3) Due to its proximity to China and history of dispute since the 1962 Chinese incursion, there are some extraordinary security considerations for all visitors to Arunachal. One needs a special permit to visit Arunachal, even if one is an Indian citizen. This further deters tourists.

4) I requested a friend to get the permit made for me at Guwahati before I reached Guwahati so that I could commence my journey into Arunachal Pradesh immediately after reaching Assam. I ended up paying Rs 230 for a permit which officially costs Rs 25. Needless to say, this permit ‘business’ is a bonanza for the officials entrusted with the task of issuing them.

5) I wonder why an Indian citizen needs a special permit to enter Arunachal when all he needs to prove (to get the permit) is that he is a bona fide Indian citizen. The documents required to get the permit are either a voter ID card, or a driving license, or a ration card, or a passport – all these have a photo of the person. One needs to show the ‘permit’ at the state border and certain check-posts inside Arunachal. Why can’t an Indian citizen simply show the original document (voter ID, driving license, passport, etc.) at these check-posts, making the ‘permit’ redundant?

6) Roads in Arunachal (at least in the Bhalukpong-Bomdila-Tawang route) are generally quite bad. The Tezpur-Tawang highway is being widened but the pace of work is reportedly very slow and the quality suspect. God alone knows when this project will get completed. Meanwhile, the road construction work is further aggravating the bottlenecks on this highway.

See the condition of road

7) Beyond Tawang, there are some beautiful tourist spots like Shungatser Lake, Bum La, etc. But the roads leading to these places are unpaved and one can barely do an average of 20 km per hour on such roads.

8) Unpaved and broken roads also mean that if there is a vehicle ahead of you, you need to drive through a cloud of dust and if your vehicle is not air-conditioned, you had it.

9) Bad and broken hill roads also translate into higher transportation costs. I (along with some other tourists) hired an old Chevrolet Tavera (which had seen better days) for Rs 3500 per day.

10) Any tourist from a civilized nation would be shocked to see the condition of vehicles plying on the treacherous ghat-roads of India – my Rs 3500 per day Tavera had inoperative seat belts, worn out tyres, a 15-degree steering play and a young Bangladeshi driver who was convinced that without an overdose of oral and inhaled tobacco and periodic swigs of alcohol one could not drive for hour after hour on broken ghat roads.

11) The best periods to visit Arunachal are either during winter when everything is snow-covered or during rhododendron flowering season. During my visit in October, I neither found snow (not even distant snow-clad mountain peaks) nor rhododendron blooms, nor orchids. But what I did see were miles and miles of wilderness, some small waterfalls and lakes, hundreds of Army camps / cantonments, some interesting war (1962) memorials, clear skies, many Buddhist monasteries, colourful heather / moss-covered mountains and hundreds of miles of broken roads.

Colourful hillsides

12) As compared to popular tourist destinations in the hills of North Bengal, Sikkim, etc., the flow of tourists into Tawang is a mere trickle due to aforementioned factors.

13) Tawang is a small tourism-oriented town like Darjeeling and has many hotels. I stayed in an ordinary hotel with basic facilities for Rs 1000 per night.

Tawang town

War Memorial at Tawang

14) Like other small towns in the hilly regions of Eastern India, Tawang goes to sleep early – markets close and streets get deserted by 8 PM (just one time zone all across India).

15) Liquor is very cheap in Arunachal due to low taxes – in Tawang, beer (650 ml) is Rs 50, Bacardi Breezer Rs 50, Blenders’ Pride (750 ml) Rs 380, 100 Pipers (750 ml) Rs 750.

16) Only BSNL mobile network works in Arunachal. About a year back, due to perceived security reasons, only postpaid connections were allowed – but now prepaid BSNL connections work equally well.

17) Army is omnipresent – as a matter of fact, in some places I found more Army men than local civilians.

War Memorial at Jaswantgarh

18) The mountains and hills of Arunachal look different – covered with lots of cracks and loose boulders. This may have something to do with the rocks being more fragile and subjected to huge cyclical stresses due to accumulation and melting of thick ice every year. This also leads to frequent landslides.

Loose boulders litter mountainsides

19) To visit Bum La, an additional permit is required from Tawang. I wanted to visit Bum La, but the permit issuing office was closed at it was a ‘second Saturday’.

20) Many tribes of Arunachal have a strange way of disposing of their dead – the body is chopped (by professional ‘body choppers’) into small pieces which are thrown into rivers for fish to eat.

21) The staple food is rice. In ‘dhabas’ one can get a rice-dal-subjee plate for Rs 50.

22) One positive thing that amazed me was uninterrupted electricity supply everywhere, even in remote villages.

Jung Falls -- small hydro plant in foreground

23) In Tawang, I found Chinese goods in many shops with their original price tags in RMB (Chinese Yuan).

24) People of Arunachal Pradesh appear to be simple and honest and I was told that thefts, burglaries, etc., are quite rare.

Some more pictures I took may be seen at

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At 12:48 PM, Blogger George said...

Very perceptive and interesting!

Around 20 years ago, along with my family, we travelled in these parts - Sela pass, and Tawang and the roads were exactly as you describe it. Amazingly even then, road repair / widening was in progress. Efficacy of the work undertaken is self evident with your narrative. This seems a standard racket all over our beloved country, repair roads which deteriorate soon enough for the next contract to be awarded and the powers that be continue to rake in the 'moolah"

Just consider the enormous amounts of fuel, and maintenance - the army and other vehicles need to spend to be able to endure these roads. When are the blasted Babu's going to wake up and actually administer as they are paid to do?????



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