Escape The Ordinary — Tales From Tawang

Arunachal Pradesh, which literally translates to 'land of dawn-lit mountains' is the northeastern-most state in India, and one of the remotest locations in the country.

The western-most district of the state is Tawang, known for its beautiful monastery and breathtaking topography that mesmerizes all who pass through. The scenic expanse of the area, including the snow-capped Gudpi and Chong-Chugmi mountain ranges, the Tawang Chu River and the Tawang valley are spectacular sights.

Tawang's landscapes is enchanting and the terrain we rode along as part of the 3rd edition of the Enchanting Tawang ride by Red Panda Adventures began on February 9, 2019 and went on for a glorious ten days.

I joined four riders from across the globe on a journey that would take us through some of the most challenging terrains in the country, to cover over 1,350 kilometres from Guwahati to Tawang and back.

What awaited us was an expedition on the Royal Enfield Himalayan along the world's highest mountain range, replete with snow-covered passes that left us quivering to the beat of the engine.

A lesson in surviving rides in extreme cold conditions came in the form of sharp hairpin bends covered in unforgiving invisible black ice leaving even the most experienced of riders flat on their backsides. Also, the chance to go off the beaten path in a terrain that put both the rider's skills and the motorcycles to the ultimate test, was something I really looked forward to.

I landed in the capital city of Assam, Guwahati, on February 9 and headed straight into my hotel room for a good rest (the tortures of tiny aeroplane seats had a lasting effect on my back). This important stop ensured that I was well-rested and raring to go when it was time to ride.

Day 1

We kicked off our ride the morning of February 10 from Guwahati. The destination for the day's ride was Tenzingaon, a ride of over 230 kilometres on the saddle.

The early stretch saw us riding the highways in Assam, which was an absolute breeze. It was only after we stopped for breakfast, that the roads began to change. Large highways gave way to narrow roads that passed through many a small town and village as we made our way up north towards the Bhutanese border.

The terrain too changed in pockets, as we began our ascent up the Himalayas. After Bhairabkunda, the road split in three directions, with one heading towards Bhutan and the other heading back into Assam.

We continued to ride along the road to Arunachal, and after entering the state, rode through Kalaktang and Ankling as we pushed to Tenzingaon. The landscape continued to change as we rode through the enchanted roadside terrain.

Before we knew it, we had arrived at our overnight halt in Tenzingaon, where the mercury dipped drastically. Safe to say, I was not prepared. No matter what I wore or draped myself with, this was new to the spoilt Bangalore boy. With a good dinner down, I settled in for a night that was already leaving me quite numb with the cold.

Day 2

Day 2 dawned on us early (sunrise in some parts of Arunachal begins at 5 a.m.) as we set off for Dirang, but first, we headed to Shergaon, to fill up our rides for the day's ride ahead.

Along the way at Morshing, Red Panda Adventures organised a small off-roading session for us where we rode a rather nice trail for around 30 kilometres.

After a fun ride off the beaten path, we turned our Himalayans back onto the road towards Mandala. Helpful locals warned us of dangerous snow buildup en route the top of Mandala, possibly making the ride uphill quite a task; especially, with the temperatures going south once again. Still, we braved the challenging roads.

At one point, the imperceptible yet deadly black ice caught me and a few other riders off-guard. Thankfully, for all of us, the fall was less serious and more comical and we continued towards the snow-covered Mandala with only a few bruises.

After a hot cup of Lal Chai, we rode down the mountains to our overnight halt at Dirang, which we reached at around half-past six, by which time, it was already dark (this place seriously needs a different time zone). Dinner, warm fuzzy blankets and beds awaited us as we called it a day.

Day 3

The third day of our ride in Arunachal saw us riding from Dirang to Tawang. After a quick stop for breakfast, we rode towards Nyukmadong War Memorial, which overlooks one of the most famous battlegrounds of India's 1962 war with China.

The memorial is located on a 1.5-acre plot of land with the main monument taking the form of 25-foot high Chorten (stupa), as per local Buddhist traditions. The memorial features three-tiers and multiple coniferous trees. In a true testament of honour, plaques on either side of the memorial bear the names of our fallen soldiers.

After paying our respects at the memorial, we made our way to the Baisakhi Army camp for some much-needed coffee. The army camp also allows civilians to purchase Army gear (jackets, boots, t-shirts, etc.) at the CSD canteen.

We left the camp feeling refreshed and climbed towards Sela top, the entrance to Tawang district. The view from the snow-covered Sela top is one that you must experience for yourself, especially with the lake completely frozen over.

With temperatures now settling in the single figures and getting chillier by the day we headed towards Tawang. After crossing Jaswantgarh (named after Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, who was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra posthumously for his actions during the battle of Nuranang), we came across another patch of terrifying black ice, which covered the entire road.

Crossing this section of road took longer and was energy sapping. We managed to find some fresh snow to travel across and thankfully were finally clear of the black ice.

Post Jaswantgarh, we crossed Jung, after which, because of road work slowing us down, we lost precious daylight along the way. By the time we reached Tawang, the sun was setting.

Day 4

The fourth day of our ride was a welcome day of rest, and we took advantage by exploring the city of Tawang as the area celebrated Losar (Tibetan New Year). We visited a few places in and around Tawang, including the Big Buddha statue near the Circuit House.

However, the highlight of the day was the visit to the Tawang Monastery, which is the second largest in the world after the one in Lhasa. Built in 1860-61, Tawang Monastery, known in Tibetan as Gaden Namgyal Lhatse (Celestial Paradise in a Clear Night) is being used by the current Dalai Lama as a place of rest.

Day 5

After our day of rest, the fifth day saw us ride out into the beautiful terrain of Arunachal once again. First stop was the Pankang Teng Tso Lake, another picturesque location in a state with no dearth of fascinating sights. The snow-covered landscape of the Himalayan mountains against the lake, puts on a telling show of the rugged beauty of India's northeastern-most state.

Beside the lake was the Gamrala firing range. Gamrala is the highest firing range in India at a height of 4,200 metres, used by the Army for live fire exercises.

From the firing range, we headed towards Bum La pass, but unfortunately, the heavy snow meant we were forced to head back to Tawang, as only vehicles with chains fitted to the wheels were allowed to continue the journey.

Day 6

The sixth day of our ride across Tawang saw us head back down to Bomdila. While the day didn't go as planned owing to a little accident with our backup vehicle on the trip down, thankfully, no one was injured. Soldiers close-by jumped in to our rescue, as we waited for our backup vehicle to arrive.

Red Panda Adventures were prompt in securing a second vehicle, still, we had to cut our day's ride short by ending the day at Dirang. The journey to Dirang was quite a hard one for me; especially, as I had decided to stay and help, which meant reaching the hotel, quite a long time after the sun had set.

Day 7

The final day of our ride in Arunachal saw us riding from Dirang to Tenzingaon. We finally hit Bomdila, before hitting the Trans-Himalayan highway at Rupa. This was the last day of the ride and we took our time to enjoy the delightful sights before finally halting for the night in Tenzingaon (which was freezing once again).

Day 8

We finally bid adieu to Arunachal Pradesh, and as we descended into Assam, the weather began to change once again. The mercury headed north as temperatures gradually rose.

Our destination for the night was Kaziranga National Park, a sanctuary which is a World Heritage site that hosts two-thirds of the world's great one-horned rhinoceros population. Thanks to stifling 20 and 40 km/h speed limits, we only managed to reach our hotel at half-past six in the evening.

Day 9

Day 9 saw us step away from the saddle. Red Panda Adventures organised a safari for us inside Kaziranga National Park and the flora and fauna on offer made it a day to be remembered.

Day 10

The final day of the ride saw us leave the wild forests of Kaziranga to head back to Guwahati. The 200-kilometre long journey was mostly a sedate one as I reminisced about my journey that was, as the real world drew closer.

Thankfully, Georgie's retreat, our hotel for the final night had some of the cutest pups in the world gambolling around, which lifted my melancholic mood.

On the final flight to the urban jungle I call home, my thoughts kept switching back to the sights and sounds of Arunachal Pradesh.

Looking back at the ride still makes me want to fly back out there and do it all over again, which is why, I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in exploring the enchanting lands of Arunachal Pradesh, Tawang in particular.

About Red Panda Adventures

Red Panda Adventures is one of the few established and well-known motorcycle tour operators in this North-Eastern region of India and it caters to local as well as international riders.

Red Panda Adventures was founded by Balaji Devanathan and Martin Alva who met in 2011 for a Himalayan ride.

The Red Panda Adventures' team is comprised of personnel from the north-east who know the region well, allowing them to organise rides with proper planning and local knowledge.

What is the cost of the 'Enchanting Tawang' ride? And what do I get for my money?

Red Panda Adventures charges riders Rs 65,800 for its Enchanting Tawang Ride. This pricing is based on twin sharing basis (2 riders, 1 room).

Here's a list of what is included in the package

  • Airport Pickup & Drop
  • Hotel Accommodation
  • Motorcycle Rental Fee
  • Tour Guide
  • Fuel
  • All Local Transportation
  • Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
  • Airport Pickup & Drop
  • Local Permits
  • Motorcycle Insurance*

Price is Not inclusive of:

  • International Airfare
  • Visa Charges
  • Tips
  • Room Service Fees
  • Alcohol
  • Additional Meals
  • Personal Insurance
  • Any Local Property Damage

What is the weather like?

In a word, cold. We recommend that you pack on the layers. Sunrise is quite early (the sun can rise as early as 5:00 a.m., in some areas) and daylight begins to fade in the early part of the evening.

What about the food?

The food in Arunachal is predominantly non-vegetarian with momos, thukpa, noodles, rice and shapta as the most commonly seen food items available. If you're a vegetarian, there are options on offer for you as well.

Places to visit in Tawang

  • Sela Pass
  • Tawang Monastery
  • Madhuri Lake
  • Tawang War Memorial
  • Pankang Teng Tso Lake
  • Jaswantgarh

What motorcycle will I be riding?

Red Panda Adventures offers the Royal Enfield Himalayan to riders for its Enchanting Tawang ride.

The Himalayan is an entry-level adventure tourer motorcycle that is powered by a 411cc, single-cylinder engine that produces 24.5bhp and 32Nm of torque.

The engine is paired with a 5-speed gearbox. The Himalayan features a 19-inch spoked wheel up front while the one at the rear is two inches smaller at 17-inches. The wheels are clad with CEAT Gripp XL all-terrain tyres.

Verdict on Red Panda Adventures

Friendly and experienced riders. If you're looking for a premium experiential motorcycle tour/adventure on two-wheels with just a handful of riders to ensure maximum satisfaction — hit up Red Panda Adventures. Their rides will help you 'escape the ordinary', and is worth every penny! Five-Stars.

Photography: Rahul Jaswal, Hetal Trivedi, Girish Shet, Pradeep Warrier and Red Panda Adventures (Balaji Devanathan)

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Read more on: #experience rides
Article Published On: Saturday, June 22, 2019, 17:49 [IST]
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