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Dawki, Bomdila, and Tawang, India: On the edge of yesterday and tomorrow

By Amrita Katara Chandnani 5 September 2020

Header image courtesy of Vidhi Dedhia

The adventure had begun. My friends and I had decided to manoeuvre alongside the lofty clouds in the hilly regions of Northeast India, despite the many unsolicited cautionary suggestions bestowed upon us. I was unsure of how this trip would turn out.

But if there was something I was sure of, it was this: I would fly back home with a story worthy of being told and retold. It was an impulsive decision but I’m glad we made it happen. After going through a series of adventures in Shillong and Cherrapunji, it was time for us to pack our bags yet again and follow our hearts (along with a detailed itinerary) onwards for crystal clear rivers and Tibetan towns.

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We stood at the India-Bangladesh border, surrounded by the Indian military on all sides. A gate stood towering in front of us. A sardarji (a term used for Sikh men in India) stood by it with a jovial smile. He was thrilled to see us. We walked up to him as he said, “Thank you for visiting us.” We exchanged pleasantries and looked around to see that there was not much to see at the border.

Nonetheless, the fact that we could peep into another country was in itself quite a thrill. But this is not why we had left Cherrapunji. It was just a pitstop on the way to one of the most serene border towns in India—Dawki. What is it known for? The Wah Umngot. Google this river and you’ll be taken aback. When we did our research, we knew these photos had to be Photoshopped. But the reviews on various travel sites told a different story altogether. The boats that glided on the river looked as if they were floating. The water was not just clear—it was transparent. So we had to test the mirage.

A slight drizzle caressed our windshield as we drove to the mesmerising river. On arriving, a little part of me was let down. The water was clear but it was nothing like the pictures. We looked at Wah Umngot in dismay as we bought a paper cone of the streetside delicacy to snack on. The local vendor looked at us and knew exactly what we were thinking. “You got unlucky,” he said in Hindi as he read our faces. “It rained about half an hour before you arrived. That spoils the visibility of the riverbed.”

We realised that there wasn’t much we could do about that so we shrugged our shoulders and decided to do the boat ride anyway. And I’m glad we did it. As we glided onto the surface, our guide pointed at a little piece of land in the middle of the river. There were beautiful stones of varied colours strewn across it. We decided to explore the stones a little more. The sight was breathtaking. We picked up stones of all colours as souvenirs. My favourites were the lilac heart-shaped beauties while my friends were fascinated with the coral-and-yellow-coloured heavyweights.

This was the last of our adventures in Meghalaya. Our next stop was Arunachal Pradesh. We tried striking a deal with our faithful taxi driver, Elvis, but his rundown little Alto would not stand the dangerous terrains of Arunachal Pradesh. He advised us to rent the public Sumo taxis. The only challenge was that we would have to share the taxi with seven other strangers. Some of these were military men, serving at the borders. Worried for our safety, we weighed many options. We had been told many horror stories about the fate of lone female travellers in India. But this was Northeast India—a land far different from the rest of the nation. So we decided to take the plunge.

Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most scenic states in the Indian subcontinent. While it can woo you with its beauty, it is sure to leave a mark with its soul-quenching drives. A beautiful Bollywood song played in the background as our drive began. We were glad that we had planned our itinerary the way we did. If you would visit the state of Meghalaya after Arunachal Pradesh, it wouldn’t come across as breathtaking as it did for us. As much as we loved the hills of Shillong and the treks of Cherrapunji, the landscapes were nothing compared to Arunachal Pradesh. And because it was such a heavily guarded area, you needed an Inner Line Permit to enter the region.

Lost in thoughts and a book, we reached the quaint little town of Bomdila. Coming from the city of Mumbai—where it is summer year-round—we were accustomed to the heat. But Bomdila had quite the opposite to offer. We stepped out of the Sumo and into the marketplace. Tibetan flags hung everywhere—on motorcycles, hotels, trees, you name it. Walking around to find our hotel, we noticed how well-dressed the people were in this township. From leather boots to crisp overcoats and chic jackets, the people of Bomdila took fashion quite seriously. So we decided to dress our part as well.

Our hotel was a cute little structure overlooking the mountains. We had a window full of snow-clad peaks and deep valleys. The restaurant on the top floor served a mean aloo paratha (Indian potato-stuffed flatbread). The marketplace was bustling with energy, and enthusiastic salespeople welcomed us into their stores, telling us we needed to wear something warmer to withstand the cold. There were monasteries at every nook and corner. You would often find little monks running around the cold earth. Bomdila had enveloped us with the enchanting architecture of Tibetan descent. It was a cold place, but it had warmed up our hearts in a little less than 48 hours.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the story 👇

By Amrita Katara Chandnani 5 September 2020
By Amrita Katara Chandnani 5 September 2020

It was time to leave this beautiful town and make way for Tawang. We rented yet another shared taxi but this time around, we noticed that the taxi drivers were tying chains around the car’s tyres. That’s when we knew the drive was going to get a tad bit unsafe.

To our surprise, we reached Tawang without a glitch. It was a 10-hour drive from the city of Bomdila. The landscape changed drastically as we made the ascent. A blanket of snow covered the earth as we drove along. Towards the end of the drive, we were shocked to see cyclists braving the biting cold and pushing forward to reach the icy town of Tawang.

With new-found respect for these adventurists, we finally made it to our hotel. It was a dark, dank place that felt eerie in the dead of the night. Candles burned everywhere. There was no electricity, nor anyone to welcome us at the reception. Thick tapestries hung everywhere and worn-out rugs lined the floor. Antique brassware and bamboo furniture gave a rich character to the hotel.

On ringing the bell a million times, finally, the staff appeared. A stout man with bloodshot eyes took down our details and happily informed us that we were the lone guests at the property. I could feel the hair at the back of my neck rise and sweat broke on my brow. I didn’t want to be alone in this haunted house. But the lights were out and it was extremely unsafe to drive around at that time. We stepped out nonetheless.

Shivering in the cold mountain air, we hired a taxi. It was a van and the driver was nothing less than rude. We negotiated a rate with him to take us to see the light and sound show at the War Memorial. Sitting in the stands, watching a beautiful tale of the warriors who had spent their lives saving India from its invaders, I found myself awestruck and burning with the fire of patriotism. We left the War Memorial feeling pure gratitude for our guardians that protected the nation. When we got back to our hotel, we weren’t so paranoid anymore. Exhausted with the day’s travels, we slept upon hitting the pillow.

The next day, we caught the dawn as we got ready to explore the city. Northeast India sees daylight only until 5 pm so we had to make the most of the light hours. As we drove along to the famous tourist spots, our taxi driver intrigued us with the myth of the golden ducks. At that time of the year, these ducks would migrate from the China border into Arunachal Pradesh and he told us how auspicious it was to spot them. Excited about the little trivia, we drove through panoramic views to reach the India-China border.

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Amrita was born and brought up in the city of dreams—Mumbai—before she moved to Hong Kong. Magic is her life’s mantra. Which is why, you get no points for guessing that she’s a die-hard Potterhead. She loves manoeuvring through the bylanes of alien cities in search of delectable delicacies and blogging about them. She also has a palate for short stories and often writes tales inspired around the food she eats. Amrita has contributed to Condé Nast India in the past as a Copy Editor and Writer. And now, she’s on the quest to discover Hong Kong, one bite at a time.