Sunday, December 25, 2011

Arunachal Pradesh - The harrowing journey back

Arunachal Pradesh – the land of dawn lit mountains
(The harrowing journey back)

The pristine meandering river near Tenga

(I am posting this part of the travelogue not to discourage or dissuade the travellers from travelling to Arunachal Pradesh but to make them aware of the natural calamaties etc. for which they should be well prepared both mentally & physically and be prepared for any eventuality. The unmatched pristine natural beauty of the region oblivates such difficulties faced, if any.)
rom the inception itself, having been warned of road blocks etc. during the monsoons, I had planned the trip to be completed in May itself i.e. before the monsoon arrived. However, as a measure of abundant precaution I had booked for Helicopter tickets during the return journey from Tawang. Accordingly, after having confirmed my booking with the concerned official after my arrival at Tawang itself, I was ready to take the one hour journey back to Guwahati by Helicopter. Those who had undertaken this journey earlier were mesmerized by the natural beauty of the Bhutan valley through which the Helicopter returns back to Guwahati. I too was expectant and ready with my gear to capture few such scenes for posterity in my Cameras.

However, things were destined otherwise and on the day of return journey i.e. 25th May, 2009 when I got up in the morning I was shocked to find the weather had turned inclement over the night and it was raining at Tawang. The visibility because of dense clouds was also minimal and the sixth sense in me fore warned me of the possibility of the flight not taking off. I immediately rang up the duty officer over his mobile, but he assured me that it was a regular feature in the region and that the Helicopter service will be definitely operating around noon and that I should report to the Helipad at 10.30 A.M. Accordingly, as I had already informed the driver Tolo (as detailed in my previous travelogue of the series), he was there on time to pick us up. It was still raining when we boarded his Taxi and as he was about of start he discovered that one of his tyres had gone flat. My wife was apprehensive taking it to be a bad omen whereas I assured her that whatever small glitch had been done away with this act. We reported at the Helipad dot on time but the weather situation continued to remain grim. I spoke to the old local guard at the Helipad and expressed my opinion regarding the fact that it would be difficult for a Helicopter to operate in such conditions. However, the duty officer continued to be optimistic and assured all of us that the services would definitely operate. Tolo informed me that in case the service was cancelled, I should ring him up and he would arrange for some other mode of transportation for us. Despite enquiring repeatedly from the duty officer, we were informed that the service would not be cancelled. However, at around 12.30 P.M. when I came out of the reception, I found Tolo trudging towards us, he informed me that the flight had indeed been cancelled and it would be appropriate if we immediately proceeded for road journey and booked a vehicle from the township, as the impending rush after official announcement would render our efforts more difficult. I took his advise and by the time we had loaded our luggage back onto his Van the official announcement regarding cancellation was made.
A small road side mesmerizing waterfall on way up to Tawang

As we had beaten the crowd by a few precious minutes, we were first to reach the travel agency and after much haggling the intial price quoted of Rs.11,000/- for return journey to Guwahati, was reduced to Rs.8,500/- only. As we were boarding the Bolero Jeep that had been hired, another of the passengers, who was a local politician known as Mr. Kesang also arrived looking for a shared vehicle. However, the travel agency informed him that no vehicle was plying even upto Bomdila that day and directed him to me. I readily accepted to accommodate him, as a local person by all means was a god sent omen. Thus, we started our descent from Tawang and accommodating a local person immediately spelt good returns as he took the driver through a short cut which cut the journey by more than 10 Kms. upto Jung and thus we saved about an hours drive in the inclement weather.
Having reached Jaswant Garh, the driver got down for a cup of Coffee and Mr. Kesang volunteered to take the wheels as he thought that the driver was slow and we would be very late in reaching Bomdila, which was our destination for the first leg. He was a handful of a driver and very adept to the conditions and raced across the roads at a fierce pace. After crossing the Sela Pass, the visibility was reduced to less than 10 meters but Mr. Kesang continued with his pace as he knew the road like the back of his hand. However, just as we reached Baisakhi, a vehicle Tata 709 – pickup truck, which was driving ahead of us suddenly came face to face with a Army Bus and the driver in his attempt to avert the head on collision (due to poor visibility), had turned the vehicle away from the metalled road and due to rains the road gave away and the Vehicle had plunged into the ravines below and was not visible due to dense fog. This incident unnerved Mr. Kesang as well and he reduced his pace considerably. Having crossed Dirang, both the drivers as well as Mr. Kesang were apprehensive of the road conditions in the Munna Camp area, as it was prone of landslides in such conditions. But we gradually made our way across this strip of road as well, but suddenly as Mr. Kesang again tried to increase the pace of journey as it had really become dark by then, we were in for another delay as one of the tyre got punctured. The spare tyre was taken out and placed and we resumed our journey. Finally we arrived at Bomdilla at around 7.30 P.M. and found that most of the hotels were booked and accommodation had become a premium there. After a few hiccups, with the help of the driver lad we were able to locate hotel Elysium Lodge and took shelter for the night. Since Mr. Kesang wanted to go to Itanagar and proposed to take the State Transport bus early in the morning, we exchanged notes and bid adieu.
The ranging river near Tenga after the rains - the picture of same river as depicted above
The lodge was very nice and clean and after partaking the dinner, I decided that in case the rains ceased we would start after 9.00 A.M. or else we would start at the earliest in the morning. The next morning, when I woke up at 6.30 A.M., I found that the weather had deteriorated further during the course of the night and after offering puja to Lord Hanuman (being a Tuesday), we started off from Bomdila at 7.30 A.M. itself. The driver informed me that he had already dropped Mr. Kesang at the bus stand at 5.00 A.M. in the morning. The driver started driving cautiously, as he could not locate any workshop to get the tyre repaired either at night or in the morning. The driver pointed out to me that a few kilometers below Bomdilla the road was prone to landslides and the kind of rainfall that we had witnessed over the period of previous 36 Hours had made the conditions appropriate for such calamity, he further requested me to keep a watch on the hill side ahead for any falling of stones etc. We were proceeding at a leisurely pace when all of a sudden the driver applied brakes with all his force and before I could gather as to what had happened, a huge pile of rocks descended about 10 meters ahead of us. Suddenly, a few smaller stones started rolling downwards in the vicinity of the vehicle and without wasting any time the driver immediately reversed the vehicle 20 meters back. The driver insisted that we stay put in the vehicle for some time before the situation stabilizes. After waiting in the Vehicle for a good ten or so, we gradually got down and the driver informed me that since no Vehicle was visible in the near vicinity, we had to undertake the task of removing the stones from the road and in the same breath he warned me to be careful and keep a watch for any sound or movement above on the hill side and to make a dash for it in case of any eventuality. Being in a white collared job for a long period of time, away from the physical strenuous works, the work was quite a handful for me, plucking stones weighing 10-20 Kgs. and tossing them away from the road. However, I did accomplish the task with some deftness, maybe because of the sudden adrenalin rush. But then we got struck in a quagmire as the huge boulders which had fallen were so heavy that they did not even budge a millimeter despite our best efforts. We were left with no other alternative but to wait for some help.
Help did arrive after a patient wait of about fifteen minutes or so in form of a Bus loaded with 5-6 army Jawans. The Jawans immediately got down and with help of an iron rod tried to lever the stone out of the way but to no avail. During this exercise, the lavishly praised the driver for his presence of mind as even a second’s delay would have cost us dearly, as either the vehicle (alongwith us) would have got crushed or thrown off the road into the gorge below. Since the stone, be so heavy was not budging despite efforts being put in by eight of us, we were getting flabbergasted. Suddenly a truck with laborers arrived from the opposite side and these labourers also armed with another iron rod joined hands and finally we were able to shift the stone from the road to the embankment. By this time I was so tired that it took quite an effort from my side to even get back to the vehicle and I immediately popped in some candies to up my energy meter.
The same mesmerizing waterfall has now turned into a huge torrent of water
Having got past this debacle, we started rolling towards Tenga and I instructed the driver to keep ahead of the Army Bus, in view of any other such calamity, that we may encounter ahead. After another an hour or so we reached Tenga, but were in for another jolt. The debacle this time was the impending mud flow from the mountain side and the BRO personnel had blocked the traffic on either side. Here I learnt from the locals that during the year 2007 such a mudflow had washed away the bridge & entire road ahead and tourists were stranded in Bomdila for almost two weeks. I went ahead and spoke to the supervisor, informing him of my flight status at Guwahati, albeit a lie and I was permitted to cross the area at my own risk. As we were getting ready to embark for a sprint across the place, the driver suddenly spotted Mr. Kesang, whose Bus had reached much earlier but the driver, being a government employee, would not budge despite request and he had been stranded here since morning. With a sense of gratitude, he again boarded our Vehicle for transit upto Balipara from whence he could get a private vehicle to ply him upto Itanagar. Having crossed this hurdle, I asked the driver to get his spare tyre repaired looking at the inclement weather and I did not want to get stranded because of this. After half an hours journey we reached Nag Mandir and the driver promptly stopped the Vehicle to get his tyre repaired. This took almost 45 minutes and the driver & Mr. Kesang went for a cup of tea in the pouring rain. A local shopkeeper pointed out to a series of small water streams cascading down the mountain side, below which the Nag Mandir is situated and informed me that usually there are one or two such streams during normal rain and this increases of 4-5 during moderate rains and upto seven or more with heavy downpour and already six streams had started flowing. He informed me that in a matter of another hour or so a small rivulet of water would be flowing across the road where we were standing. Having got the tyre repaired we moved ahead towards Bhalukpong.
We had barely traveled for another hour or so when all of a sudden we were jolted out of our seats at the sight that unfolded ahead of us. A huge stream of mud & water was flowing at a considerable force across the road ahead of us and many small cars like Maruti 800/Omini/Zen etc. were stranded on either side of this stream. The local labourers informed us that this stream had appeared, almost out of the blue, a few hours back and was now assuming alarming proportions. But the laborer further informed us that bigger Vehicles like ours could cross the stream. The driver being a deft one informed me that he would cross the stream by approaching it from the side it was flowing onto the road i.e. the mountain side and even if the vehicle was washed away for a few feet, we would still remain on the road. He approached this obstacle and crossed it without much ado. However, he warned us that we should be ready for such eventualities till we crossed over into Assam. Further ahead on the road we came across huge waterfalls cascading down almost onto the road and thus, stopping access to smaller vehicles en-route, which were merely small water-falls we had encountered while going to Tawang but had now assumed gigantic proportions.
Finally, after a tense journey of more than six hours we finally emerged from the hills of Arunachal Pradesh, having crossed Bhalukpong. The driver requested us that since the vehicle had undergone a very torturous ride over the last two days it required immediate servicing for keeping it fit for further journey and assured us that another vehicle would be ready on the highway itself to transport us to Guwahati. I agreed to his suggestion and he spoke with the owner of the vehicle for doing the needful. The owner was almost taken aback when he received the call from the driver as he had been informed by the other driver from the Tenga valley that the road beyond Nag Mandir, through which the stream had been flowing, had washed away the portion of the road, thus stranding all the Vehicles that were following us. Being skeptic, I checked out the news on internet and the same was confirmed.
Having embarked on the other vehicle that had been arranged for us we completed the remaining journey upto Guwahati without further ado and the return journey from Guwahati to Delhi by flight was also uneventful, but for some air pockets we encountered while passing over the North Bengal area, courtesy the after affects of ‘Cyclone Alia’ which had also dashed my hopes of Helicopter ride from Tawang. Considering the trip in hind sight, it was a mixed bag of adventure & misadventure, thrown together, which makes a journey memorable.
A copy of the news from internet regarding the road blockage caused by heavy rains on 25th/26th May, 2009
To watch a short video, all that I could manage under stress -

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