There are places that arent merely destinations.
There are places that arent merely destinations. They are sometimes the discovery at the end of a road trip. Walong in the eastern most reaches of India is one such place. The starting point for a trip to eastern Arunachal Pradesh usually is Dibrugarh or,further down,Tinsukia in Assam. And the classic East of the Northeast trip begins,arguably,at the Dirak gate,just beyond the town of Doomdooma also in Assam.
At Tezu,the leafy headquarters of the Lohit district,in Arunachal Pradesh,we were at the gateway to the eastern most tip of India and ready to go further northeast. From here on,the route snakes up and there isnt much for company other than the spectacular mountains and the feisty Lohit river playing consort.
At Demwe,the NH 37 coming up from Chowkham via Parasuramkund joins in on the journey. As the road climbs resolutely,the views are promising. There are 200 kilometres of near-empty road all the way to Walong. Occasionally,we came across the odd jeep or a bike. Tourists are a rarity in these parts and most of the Sumos and Scorpios are busy ferrying locals from the many far-flung villages higher up to Tezu and Tinsukia and back.
As we drove into Walong just before sundown,we caught a glimpse of the city in the muted light. The first thing you notice here is the silence. Other than the odd shout from children,all we could hear was the unrestrained gurgle of the Lohit in its mad rush down from the Chinese mountains. A smattering of houses and shops apart,the only major habitation is the large army base,as Walong is just 20 km south of the China border.
We were lucky to get a booking at the circuit house for there is virtually no accommodation otherwise. But its location couldnt have been better. From its vantage point,the rooms look out on to the mountain peaks and the valley below. Apart from a hospitable staff and tasty food,it was uncharacteristically clean and well appointed.
We spent the evening walking on the sparsely populated main road of Walong. There were a few shops open,the local people huddled around chatting as children played in groups. Beyond the road and the market,the army camp spread to the river bank. The contrast of the decorum of the camp stood out against the temperamental Lohit as its rising froth and chatter reminded us of its sobriquet,the river of blood.
As we climbed back to the circuit house through a short cut from the market,the last light of the sun lit the mountains,the river and all of Walong. All night long,the silence of the valley and the gush of the Lohit completed the background score.
Up early,we drove further north,further east to the memorial built by the Lohit Brigade to salute the brave sacrifice by the army during the 1962 war. The name of each martyr is etched in marble. Just 4 km out of Walong is Tilam,known for its hot springs that,reportedly,have medicinal properties. A circuit house is getting readied here. We walked over a hanging bridge to where the climb up to Dong village begins. Overlooking Burma and China,this village catches the first rays of the sun in India. At the turn of the last millennium,flocks of tourists had swarmed to the hilltop to catch the first rays of the first sunrise of the 21st century light up the Dong valley and,in time,the rest of the country.
The Namti plains have a special place in the history of Indias battles. In October,1962,the Chinese planned their incursion into the region they call the Tigers mouth. For 22 days,the Indian army fended off the enemy but,eventually,the Chinese crossed the Lohit. Today,a memorial stands by the roadside reminding people of the bloody nose that the Indian army gave and pledging that Walong will never fall again.
Equally touching is the Helmet Top,18 km above Walong. It is said that at the end of the battle,only helmets lay strewn here. Today,a memorial stands here as a reminder of the courage and commitment of fallen soldiers.
On the climb up to Kaho village there was little traffic. With every turn,the mountains on the Chinese side seemed to grow larger. We stopped at a particularly breathtaking hanging bridge that straddled both banks of the Lohit. A walk to the end and back needs steely nerves because of the bridges uncontrollable swing and the raging waters below.
Kaho sits prettily amidst towering mountain peaks. With no more than 10 households,it is a very peaceful village. But cutting into that serenity is the uncertainty of what lies beyond and the constant presence of the army,as the Line of Actual Control lies adjacent to it. Besides the village school,a monastery and a small tea shop cum PCO,Kaho is about silence and surreal beauty. We walked into the Lohit Goodwill School and said hello to the children. A short climb up from the monastery is an Indian army outpost and we paid them a courtesy visit. In turn,the two jawans allowed us a quick peek through their binoculars at the tiny houses on the Chinese side.
Getting to Walong is not easy. But this inaccessibility has ensured that it retains a pristine quality. If what has happened to Tawang,Ladakh or Sikkim is anything to go by,it is just as well that the lovely east of Northeast continues to be a hidden gem and is sought after only by the serious traveller.
Inner Line Permits are required to enter Arunachal Pradesh. These are granted for tourists and are for a definite period for each district being covered. ILPs can be obtained from the Arunachal Pradesh Governments Residence Commissioners office in Delhi,Kolkata,Guwahati,Dibrugarh and other towns in Assam where there is a Liaison Officer. An Indian citizen needs only one permit for Lohit (Dirak Gate while coming from Tinsukia and Sunpura while coming from Sadia/Chapakhowa (Assam). Foreign tourists have to specify,while applying,all the places they plan to visit.
P Rajesh is Bangalore-based and works at HolidayIQ