Arunachal was an experience of a lifetime…..almost a Bollywood movie with stories of beauty, betrayal, patriotism and love all intermixed with scenic locations and amazing weather. It was a choice to visit only one of the Seven Sisters of the North- east since we had been keen on exploring Arunachal without the rush to do others. We hope to do the others someday.
We were a bunch of 6 people (5 architects – one of whom is trying to achieve all the degrees which can accorded in India to an architect and 1 management student) who decided to head to the North-east in offseason May (summer and monsoon rolled into one) and finalised on Arunachal Pradesh as our main state of visit. We realised that there are mainly three circuits in Arunachal – the western Tawang circuit, the central Ziro – Along circuit and the eastern Roing circuit. Initially, we thought that we will manage both the western and central circuits in 15 days but that is pretty much impossible, no matter what Google maps say. (We will pretty much have to be superheroes with flying capes and self- jetting capabilities to complete Google map plans. )
Basic Info – Location, Stay, travel
Our final itinerary (after a lot of laughter, incredulity and skepticism for our initial ambitious plans by local Arunchalites and Kolkata ILP department) was
Guwahati (meeting point) – Nameri – Bomdila – Mandala – Tawang(for 3 nights) – Bomdila – Itanagar – Ziro(for 2 nights) – Dibrugarh.
We booked an Innova(recommended in comparison to Tata Sumo) via Travel Extent Amrit (9854031206) and the owner of the car was our driver DInesh (9485220207/9508182639). He is a good driver but requires to be placated a number of times.
We stayed in
- Jia Bhorelli Camp @ Nameri – 8011159372
We just could not get through to the Namer Eco-camp.
- Dhe-Dhen-gha-khyil Guesthouse @ Bomdila – Kumchok Tsomu – 8729904718/ 7085722615
- Mandala Birding Lodge @ Mandala – Gaurav Kataria 9999030436
Not sure whether worth the price but definitely worth the location.
- Delkyi Pelbar @ Tawang
- Hotel S C Continental @ Itanagar- 9436075875
Recommended ( not least because we checked 5 other hotels and returned to this one)
- Hotel Siiro @ ZIro – 8014794450
- Hotel Devika @ Dibrugarh
Ok for a budget hotel , More expensive but much cleaner alternative : Hotel Natraj
- Mancotta Tea Estate @ Dibrugarh
Not sure whether worth the price but maybe one time stay experience.
Day 1 –
16th May, 2016 – Kolkata- Guwahati via Saraighat Express
We had booked almost three months earlier, confident that we will get the AC 3-tier tickets will get confirmed. On the advice of friends from the North-East, had skeptically booked sleeper tickets as well. That turned out to be extremely fortunate! While dreading the train journey in sleeper class in Kolkata heat, we were super- excited to be off for a 2 week vacation to Arunachal Pradesh. Fortunately, the train starts from Howrah and that was a big contribution to it being reasonably clean and habitable. Being a bit wary about train food, especially in Indian summers, we carried our own dinner and snacks. It was too hot anyways to get tempted by the vendors carrying spicy mudi (puffed rice) or tea. The train meanders through the rural Bengal and looks pretty and idyllist from our urban point of view. Of course, that is just a veneer and the villagers probably look at the train and feel envious about adventure. 23 school kids heading to Mizoram, got in without tickets and pretty much took over our and the next compartments. They had gone for a football match to Jamshedpur, West Bengal and looked like it was not an uncommon occurrence since the Ticket Checker and they came to some arrangement. We saw them sleep anywhere possible including the disgusting toilet corridors.
Day 2 –
17th May, 2016 – Guwahati- Nameri
The day began a bit too early for our usual habits at 5 (am!). I actually thought that my wrist watch had stopped working. But apparently the sun had risen at 4.15 (again am!) and people were wide awake and the tea vendors were advertising their wares – tea and snacks (too loudly!) early morning. Blessedly the weather was cool and very monsoonish, giving us some inkling of the days ahead. Getting off at Guwahati, the first thing we did was searched for a hotel to freshen up. We felt human again after a bath and change of clothes. We had checked online for a good Assamese restaurant and were recommended Paradise hotel. Was an excellent experience with both non vegetarian and vegterian thali. A must try experience!
Keep in mind that the journey from Guwahati to Nameri is long and you should leave as early in the day as possible. We had tried contacting Nameri Eco- Camp without any success and finally booked rooms at Jia Bhorelli River Camp. We turned in early after a relaxed dinner and drink session. While the river camp was a decent place to stay, the food definitely was not worth mentioning.
Day 3 –
18th May, 2016 – Nameri- Bomdila
We met up early for a 2km walk to the Jia Bhorelli river. A simple refreshing walk far away from the cares of the world! We were greeted on the way by 2 faithful dogs and fresh elephant dung, making us wish that we should have gone for an earlier walk. Apparently elephants sometimes come to the river to drink water. The river was vast, cold and calm. While not the season for river rafting, since it had been raining for the past few days, the camp people offered us a rafting session. But we think it might have been more of a boating session! So we didn’t go rafting.
We had hired an Innova for 6 people with 1 suitcase and 1 backpack each and 2 food bags for 14 days. Our driver was clear that we could not carry so much weight to Tawang region due to hilly terrain and bad roads and so we offloaded some luggage at Hotel Solu in Bhalukpong on our driver’s recommendation. He would have liked to offload some passengers as well since he kept saying that he usually takes only 4 people up the mountain!
We stopped on the way at the Orchid Museum at Tipi. We are not sure whether it was off season or it was poorly maintained but the stop was absolutely not worth it. Since the rains had already started, we crossed some beautiful waterfalls on the way to Bomdila. We stopped for lunch at Hotel Affet in Tenga valley at 6 directly. Hungry and cold, it was a pleasure to eat hot and tasty food! We refilled our supplies and went ahead to Bomdila. We stayed at home stay Dhe-Dhen-gha-khyil, managed by Kumchok Tsomu. Beautiful place with very clean rooms and excellent service. Blessed relief from the cold and bath in hot water…. Heaven!
Day 4 –
19th May, 2016 – Bomdila – Mandala
Today we were leaving for Mandala, close to Dirang. The journey now was even more beautiful and we kept clicking away.
We had found Mandala Birding Lodge online in some blog and got enamoured with its location. Right on the edge of the mountains, it looked like an experience of a life time. We reached Dirang village in early afternoon and had to take a left just before the village. Mandala Lodge was about 22 km ahead and higher up. The journey was absolutely beautiful. As we went up, it was sunny, foggy and rainy alternatively. After 20km, we started keeping a lookout for the board for the Lodge. We suddenly came across a structure which resembled the location and photo of the Lodge on its website. But there was no board! After dithering for ten minutes, one of us went till the edge to check. It was purely luck that we saw the Lodge. The location is absolutely superb and you get a feeling of staying in an old colonial bungalow. However, my biggest grouse is that sitting inside the bungalow, you would never guess at the outside. You could miss the sunset and the clouds and the feeling of being in heaven. Being architects, we could see the potential and our disappointment was extreme. We didn’t mind the simple food or basic facilities. But lack of basic etiquettes of hospitality like a clean bucket or a functioning toilet was unexpected, considering the rates we paid for the place. It was an overall good experience since we were a group of old friends and our host Daniel was full of tribal stories. So Mandala Lodge is a place you go to if you are a serious bird enthusiast (which we are not) and/or if you are willing to go for a basic experience. But we were quite frankly not convinced that the place was worth the cost. With minor improvements, it would have been.
Day 5 –
19th May, 2016 – Mandala – Tawang
We went for a bird walk early morning but I suspect that we were quite late already. I guess it would have better just to linger at the benches outside the bungalow. We left Mandala after breakfast to head to Tawang. We stopped after Dirang at the hot springs and walked down to them, only to realised that a concrete tank is getting constructed around the springs. There was no water and we don’t expect it to be a great experience even after construction.
We were going to cross Sela pass at 12700 ft height and were accordingly prepared with warm wear and a good camera. It was an amazing experience since we got a clear road, a bit of fog and rains. We ate hot soul-satisfying Maggie with hot coffee there at Aunties, clicked tons of photos and generally froze our a**** off.
We visited Jaswantgarh memorial, the spot where the soldier died defending his post and while the presence of army and the memorial does make an impact on your mind, it is nowhere as comprehensive an experience as in Kargil. The sight of Nuarang falls was quite amazing. It is not precisely the falls you reach but a viewpoint to the falls. it was still worth it.
Hotel Delki Pelbar at Tawang was a clean and well-equipped hotel with delicious food and we enjoyed our stay and food there. Food in general, has been good in the North-east but because it does get a bit monotonous. During their month-long Buddhist festival, non-vegetarian food is not available easily. The potion sizes are quite large and we have ended up wasting food almost every time. In general, food is freshly prepared so any lunch or dinner takes time, if not previously ordered. But we were in no hurry and life is leisurely on a holiday, so maybe that is not such a bad thing.
Day 6 –
20th May, 2016 – Tawang
Today was a break from too much car travelling! We did some local sight- seeing- the famous Tawang monastery, the war memorial and some shopping. The day was pleasant and the mood was relaxed. Tawang monastery is the largest monastery in the world or so says wikipedia. Our suggestion is to read up before the trip on Buddhism, the monastery and its history since there is no guide or plaques which explain any background in the monastery. You must not miss the Hall of Diyas since it is tucked away in one corner. The war memorial showcased battle field stories of 2 soldiers- Jaswant Singh and Joginder Singh. While extremely inspiring, the stories of these two soldiers are repeated on plaques, museum and the movie in the amphitheatre. They show the movie around 530-6, which was a disappointment since the print was bad and they showed only the repetitive stories. Our driver had told us that it was much more informative earlier. We then headed back to Tawang market for shopping. Shopping in Tawang was fun. One must visit the shop Monyul, opposite our hotel and one branch in Nehru market. Otherwise you have to hunt for small things in random shops. Between the six of us, we picked up – winter stuff, rainy stuff, agarbati and stands, chinaware, wind chimes, small souveniers, scarves etc. The town starts by 8 am and shuts by 730 pm. So city people, keep that in mind. Accessing ATMs can also be a problem since they either shut early, do not have electricity or do not have money. Be prepared!
Day 7 –
21st May, 2016 – Tawang – Bumla pass- Tawang
Today we head to the highpoint of the trip- Bumla pass and Madhuri lake. The weather was sunny and we felt lucky all over again since we knew that people had had to return back due to landslides and blocked roads. Bumla pass at approx 16000 ft, is at the Indo- China border and takes about 4 hours to reach from Tawang. Here you feel the presence of the Indian army at all points and realise the effort and will to be posted in such harsh conditions. The army personnel explained the geographical and diplomatic policies of China wrt to India and the stress was on the friendly relations between the 2 countries. The entire experience was awesome and we ate steaming samosas with hot tea at 16000 ft and we had peeling noses and tanned (read burnt) cheeks for the next 2 days to remind us of this experience. Keep your faces covered since inspite of the cold, your skin does burn!
Absolutely clear skies and beautiful weather, we spent a lot of time at Madhuri lake. We had hot lunch there served by the army canteen. It seems to be quite the hot spot for the night life of Tawang with a DJ poster for playing every sunday. As soon as we left, the fog came in and blocked the view for others after us. We reached Tawang late afternoon and went off shopping. We missed the Sarchu hot springs, 4 hours from Tawang. Apparently it has an amazing landscape and locals and foreigners stay there evernight. This was our only regret since the hotsprings passed earlier near Dirang were a big disappointment.
Day 8 –
22nd May, 2016 – Tawang – Bomdila
We left around 830am since we had to remove the cash to clear bills from the ATMs which opened at 8. We found amazing weather at Sela pass and stopped for another photo session. We were staying at Gyakhil guesthouse at Bomdila once again. We had pre-ordered dinner. Tsomu greeted us like long lost friends. We went off for some more shopping. Found a reasonably good market for jackets, shoes and ceramic ware. Not too many artefacts.
While planning we had assumed that we will head to Itanagar via Seppa, which is an internal road withing Arunachal. While obtaining the ILP, we were told that we will have to exit Arunachal and enter Assam and again re-enter Arunachal for Itanagar. Our driver later told us that this was because the route was unsafe, deserted and roads were bad with no connectivity.
Day 9 –
23rd May, 2016 – Bomdila – Itanagar
We stopped at Bhalukpong for picking up our luggage and an Assamese thali lunch at a local dhaba on our way to Itanagar.
Itanagar was a big disappointment. We were told by the ILP staff that Naharlagun was a prettier choice and so inspite of a tentative booking in Hotel SC Continental, we went ahead to Naharlagun in search of scenic beauty and more hotels. Naharlagun was an even bigger disappointment. We looked through 4-5 hotels, found them all shady and dirty and returned to Itanagar after 2 hours. We crashed at the hotel SC continental and just wrapped up the day with dinner from the hotel dining. We had seen Dominoes and were pretty excited about having pizza after days of eating rice and indian food. However, by the time we ordered, around 830 pm, we were told that Dominoes shut by 8pm in the city.
Day 10 –
24th May, 2016 – Itanagar – Ziro
We left at 930 am after breakfast for Ziro, assuming we will reach for late lunch. However that turned out to be unrealistic since the road was quite bad after the junction separating the road going to Lakhimpur. We decided to skip lunch and fed on home-carried food on the way. Ziro was at 6000 ft and we were carrying light jackets and shawls. The weather was excellent with just enough drizzling to be pleasant and cool. The way was beautiful, the landscape different from Tawang’s route and there was enough to observe on the way to keep us interested in the view outside. While the road was horrible, our driver (more concerned about his car than our backsides) drove very slowly and ensured that the ride was comfortable. But it also meant that we reached Ziro at 600 pm and Hotel Siiro at almost 7. Mandala Lodge had made us wary of getting our hopes too high and we were cautious in our expectation of Hotel Siiro. However it was a very good log-hotel with clean rooms, good service and decent food. We were really glad since we were staying here for 2 days. The other alternative had been a homestay with basic facilities. But the cost of staying here and the homestay was almost same, making this a better alternative for travel-weary people like us. There was some confusion regarding our booking since all booking had been done through the hotel’s email and no actual conversation. We were lucky that the rooms were available. Otherwise this would have been a messy affair. We sat in the balcony and warmed by good drink and food, enjoyed the evening. We booked a guide for the next day’s tour through the villages via the hotel and decided to leave around 9am.
Day 11 –
25th May, 2016 – Ziro
Our day’s agenda was to head to the Emporium with handloom work, the natural stone Shivling found accidentally by woodcutters some few years back and the local villages. The Emporium had very good local handmade local shawls, jacket, gale (local skirts) and bamboo mugs, bags, baskets. It was a revelation for the time and effort in making these since the handloom section was in the Emporium itself. While we looked at other shops in the market, we ultimately bought stuff from the Emporium itself. But it shuts by 4 pm, so plan your visit accordingly. We then headed to the Shivling and the guide claimed it to be the largest natural Shivling in Asia. While deserted now, it apparently is very crowded by worshippers during Mahashivratri. We then went to the Ziro view point where we could see the different villages comprising Ziro in all directions. For lunch, we went to Ziro Valley Resort. The food was excellent and freshly prepared. We found desert here after ages and enjoyed it to the fullest. We then had visits to a few local villages and heard tons of stories of local lore. Their culture, stories and rituals were an amazing revelation.The guide had pre-ordered local dinner – Bamboo Chicken rice, momos and rice beer. Unfortunately there was no local vegetarian dish at this time. We headed back to the hotel for a great local dinner.
26th May, 2016 – Ziro – Dibrugarh
We left early next morning since we had to head to Dibrugarh and the ferry timing was not confirmed. The return journey kept us engrossed and we were sorry to leave the scenic beauty of Arunachal and reach the warmer flatter landscape of Assam. We crossed Lakhimpur at 1 and reached the ferry junction around 3pm. We had not stopped for lunch in case we miss the ferry and it stops crossing the Brahmaputra for the day. We had been told that the timing is unpredictable and with rains, the local ferry agents might not run the boat till the next day. We didn’t want to take a risk since our flights were leaving the next day. We still don’t know the timing of the ferry since there was no booth for any information near the jetty.
The ferry itself was a revelation. Our car got onto the ferry and off it purely by luck and skilful driving. We were quite sure we will lose all our luggage in the bid to cross the river. It took about an hour to reach Dibrugarh side and from there, another 30 minutes to the Hotel Devika. Hotel Devika was a simple family run hotel with good reviews online. While the first impression was not great, we realised that the place was decent, especially considering the price. However, we recommend Natraj on the same road if price is not an issue and if you prefer a slightly more professional, cleaner and comfortable hotel. We finally got a chance to order Dominoes and while people freshened up and gathered in one room, food arrived. We then took a nap and afterwards a walk in the market lanes closeby. This was a pointless exercise and we later realised that instead, we could have gone to the bamboo market or the Tibetan (Bhutia) market- both reasonably close. We agreed to meet in the morning for a walk along the Brahmaputra at 7am
Day 13 –
27th May, 2016 – Dibrugarh
We met at 730am and the day was already hot. The Brahmaputra was just 5 min away from the hotel and we started walking towards it. We quickly realised that this was no promenade along the banks of the great Brahmaputra. Instead it was an unclean s***-ridden embankment along the river. This was quite pointless. We went for buffet breakfast to the Natraj, primarily since we saw South indian fare in the menu. That was both expensive and disappointing. But we were really bored of cornflakes, toast and omelets for the past 12 days. Three people were leaving today for home and they went ahead to pack. We also freshened up and were leaving for Sibasagar since we had heard it was a good place to visit. An almost 300 yr old temple with a large man-made tank sounded interesting! We said our goodbyes to the rest of our group and left for a late lunch and Sibasagar around 1.30 pm. We were already a bit depressed about the split and it took us almost 2 hours to reach Sibasagar. The day was hot and sunny and the drive was not worth mentioning much. We went to the oldest Hotel Piccolo. The place was completely deserted and with an initial spoilt cream desert, we were very apprehensive about the food. It took almost 30 min for the food to arrive and we were pleasantly surprised. The food was excellent and the service was good. It was a leisurely lunch and we reluctantly decided to step out into the sun for sightseeing. By now, it was obvious that the day was going to be a write-off with the hot weather, boring drive and very worse sightseeing. The temple and the lake both were not well maintained and it was more like a local picnic spot for kids or actual worshippers. Our recommendation is to skip Sibasagar unless you are a true worshipper.
We headed back to Dibrugarh and it was dark by the time we reached. We decided to visit the Bamboo market once. It was quite late and we regretted not reached it earlier. It is a good market for bamboo products and artifacts not seen in Bombay at least. We unfortunately were not in the mood to shop but regretted not picking up some stuff from there later. We headed back to the hotel and crashed in.
Day 14 –
27th May, 2016 – Dibrugarh
We were to check out from Hotel Devika and decided to first head to Bhutia market and then return to check out. The market was excellent with really cheap stuff and we regretted not coming here the previous day. If you want to shop for regular clthes, shoes, bags etc, do take time and visit the market. We didnt even complete 1 lane in 2 hours. We rushed back to the hotel and checked out around 1230 pm. We were heading to the Mancotta tea estate today and were quite excited about the same. It was supposed to be a lesson in luxury, leisure and service. The online reviews were excellent and we were looking forward to the stay.
We headed to Mancotta estate. There was no board indicating the exact location once we were in the vicinity and we had to keep calling the place up. once we settled into the place, we took a look around and it was quite nice. There were areas segregated for groups and the bedroom was large. The colonial bungalow looked well-maintained and was clean and nice. We freshened up and had tea with sandwiches, which we had pre-booked along with dinner. It was relaxing and drowsy. We then settled to take a nap. Afterwards we took a walk around the place- not much to see and it was a lazy day. The local dinner had been mentioned quite a few times in the review and we were looking forward to the same. Since we were the only ones around, the time could be adjusted a bit to suit us. We realised that the dinner is exactly the Assamese thali we had eaten on the highway a few days earlier, only much more expensive. When asked for refills for some portions, we were told that there was no more for some potions. Even for tea, the samosas were exact in number and the sandwiches were just plain. The room took forever to cool because the room was too large and the AC too small. The tub in the bathroom was cracked and we couldn’t enjoy a tub bath since it just felt a bit dirty because of that. There was just this slight feeling of dissatisfaction about the entire affair. While we didn’t mind paying a hefty price for the place, there was a sense that it was not worth it and more a one-time affair. We left for the airport.
In fifteen days, we had accumulated quite a bit of extra luggage and at the airport, we realised we would have to pay too much to the airlines for extra luggage. Fortunately Jet airways had a courier service by plane and it turned out to be reasonable. Our flight was from Dibrugarh to Kolkata and then Kolkata to Mumbai. Unfortunately the booking had two different PNRs and that meant we had to check-in and check-out luggage twice. However that ensured that there was no time to get bored at the airport and we reached home around 11.30 pm that night.
We are back with awesome memories and beautiful photographs.
It was a fun trip filled with new experiences and natural beauty!