I don’t remember the last time I looked up at the night sky and admired the stars. In fact, working in an IT company, I am one of those vampires who leave the office well after darkness had set in, but still, I am usually more concerned about the traffic than the cosmos. Meanwhile, I suppose stars are being born, galaxies are moving towards black holes and comets are raining down on some planet far away. Forget the universe, did I ever wonder why I am no longer able to leisurely and slowly lick my vanilla softy like I did during the peak of summer 10 years ago? No, global warming and my ice cream were simply too far apart for me to connect until recently. But sometimes, the Earth decides that our haughty selves need a reminder and whacks our polluting selves with a hurricane or an earthquake so hard that it is impossible not to see how we are as insignificant as the fly that got stuck on a drop of melted ice cream.
I did feel like a bug caught in a storm on my recent trip to wild Arunachal Pradesh at several points, most notably at Sela pass and then four days later at Y junction. When my friend and I planned this trip in the third week of March, a friend in the army who had been there before warned us about the unpredictable weather in March. But like true city folks who are used to jumping into the nearest McDonalds at the slightest hint of a drizzle, we didn’t take him seriously. What more, our journey to Tenga from Tezpur and subsequently Bomdila was deceptively warm and sunny. The day we crossed Sela, we started early and had breakfast at an army rest stop at Sappar. We ate hot momos and started ascending towards Sela pass. After a while, my head was feeling fuzzy with all the twists and turns of the mountain road but thankfully, the momos I ate stayed in their grave. Half way up, it started getting cold suddenly and before we had time to pull on our jackets, it was snowing. Between one hairpin bend and another, the landscape changed from green to white and within 10 minutes of this, we had to stop owing to the slippery ice covered road ahead. Minduji informed us that he had to “put chains on the tires” and like a true city bred idiot, I got down from the car to watch the chaining ceremony is utter fascination, only for my face to freeze within a couple of minutes. If I thought the road was bumpy before, post chains, the experience was akin to riding a drunken camel on high heels.
If you are crossing Sela, you should remember that connectivity is pretty poor. Even in the few places where you do get some kind of reception, the howling wind, especially in bad weather, doesn’t allow for an effective two way audio communication. A fact I realized when someone called me over four times and each time I said the same thing “What? Huh? Are you talking in Hindi? No? Sorry, that wasn’t me that was the wind, sorry can’t hear you…” Back to our journey, enjoying the increasing isolation, we rode on into the blizzard and all off a sudden, there it was, Sela pass. The gate appeared in front of us like the entrance to a magical kingdom, thanks to the poor visibility inside the cloud that had rolled into the mountain. But just as quickly, the weather cleared for a few minutes and we stopped to cross the historic pass on foot not only to enjoy the scenery but also to stretch our cramped legs and bent backs.
After loitering in the middle of the highway, and peering up at the hardly visible snow covered mountains, we got into the car to warm up and start our descent down Sela only to stop just a few feet beyond the gate owing to a road block. The long line of army convoys already stuck in line was not very encouraging. But fortunately we were with Minduji, socializer extraordinaire. He made friends with the locals and soon found us some shelter in a tea shop? House? Restaurant? No idea what it was but it had a fireplace and a roof. Just like how people have this overwhelming compulsion to share ghost stories on dark nights when there is a power failure, most of the talk in the tea shop was on the death of a tourist the previous day at the same spot we were stuck at; never mind 127 other tourists were successfully rescued by the army.
After much grinning and small talk in broken Hindi with the locals, we felt sufficiently warm and bored enough to step outside once again and explore. We soon realized to whom we should be thankful for this vacation, The Boarder Road Organization. If not for these guys, I don’t think anyone can reach Tawang at all. I cannot imagine how it should have been to cut the mountains and lay roads in such bad weather. They truly will be remembered.
My friend and I continued our casual stroll along the road to capture the scenery, which wasn’t much given that everything was blanketed in white. The weather was volatile and there were sudden gusts of snow and wind interspersed with moments of utter stillness; something like the mountains having a sneezing fit. We were stuck at the pass for over an hour and a half but honestly it felt like a lot longer. Breathing was difficult and talking too because of the frozen face syndrome. However, the scariest part was the disorientation. I have no idea how long we walked and how far we went down the road especially confused because of the long line of similar looking army trucks loaded with similar looking soldiers. The road ahead looked endless and time had no meaning with my own body slowing down. The landscape was nothing like the pictures we googled before our journey. The historic gate was completely shrouded in fog, the road, the lake and the mountains were all covered in snow. It gave a strange feeling of being suspended in never ending cold whiteness.
Thankfully, misery loves company and my friend and I stopped our indeterminate journey exploring Sela’s wild beauty on hearing snatches of Tamil. We started a conversation with an army Jawan from Chennai and from there on we passed the time happily reminiscing about sweltering heat and the dry spell back home. Meanwhile, it started snowing quiet heavily. Despite people around me, I felt a crushing sense of isolation as we wandered about. The imposing mountains looked cruel and heartless in the dark and broody weather. But just as before, the weather cleared after a while and even the sensible folks who were waiting for the road to clear from the safety of their vehicles ventured out. Soon there was a mad scramble for good selfie spots. I don’t think I will ever understand the raw courage the prospect of selfies induces in people. But anyway, we finally started our descent towards Tawang feeling very much smaller after facing the rage of the mountain Gods.
Oh! And why did I talk about connectivity before? Because, someone from Tenga was trying to reach us over phone to warn us about the road block. Moral of the story, when traveling across wild places, don’t rely on your gadgets and learn to do what the natives do. That is, wind down your window and simply ask how it is ahead at every check post and also smile and strike up conversations with every driver passing by. After all, the mountains are no place to be morose and prideful.