It was as desolate as a place could be. But it was also breathtaking in its beauty. A man in uniform asked me to peer into the binoculars. He said if i looked to the left, i would see the Chinese radar system and sure enough, there was a white colored dome shaped building there.
When i focused on what lay ahead, i could see the nearest army outpost and through the binoculars i followed the road that led into the Chinese territory. I was at Bum La pass, the Indo-China border located 15200 feet above sea level in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.
When I was done watching, the army man pointed to a nearby mountain and said there was an observatory point at the top and every day, one of them has to climb and check for enemy movements. I could only imagine how hard it would be to trek at such altitudes.
It was January, a time when winters were at their harshest in this part of the world. My friends had visited Tawang a year earlier in summer and they couldn’t go to Bum La pass as the roads had been closed due to heavy snowfall. And here I was, trying my luck in winter.
Lady luck had a soft corner for me though. The first thing we did after setting foot in Tawang was make arrangements for our trip to the border. I was overjoyed when our hotel guy said the roads were open and we could go.
A travel operator made the permit arrangement for us. It was hassle-free. All we had to do was submit our ID and the ILP ( Inner Line Permit). He charged us INR 4000 for the day trip.
It was one of those big jeeps with a lot of space, so if you are going in a group, it will turn out to be quite economical. And more than anything, this trip is worth every penny you spend.
Note: There are two permits needed for this region. One is the ILP (Inner Line Permit) to enter Tawang. The second one is the special permit to travel from Tawang to Bum La pass and Sangetsar Lake.
Bum la pass is around 38 kms from Tawang and despite the short distance, it took a good 2 hours to reach (including breaks). We din’t mind it as the entire route was scenic beyond belief. I had never seen so much snow in my life and everything from roads to rocks to mountains were draped in snow.
The skies were a clear blue and massive clouds loomed in the distance. In a span of an hour, the landscape had changed dramatically. We passed many lakes including the popular PT Tso Lake and all of them were frozen.
When we were about to reach an army check post, our vehicle started skidding on snow. On roads like these, it can be perilous to drive without a snow chain attached. Our driver stopped the car on a turning and when he applied the brakes, the car swung on its own. Luckily there was no exposure to the valley on the other side.
While the driver got down to work, we soaked in the amazing beauty around us, did a short jog on an uphill road and got the wind knocked out of us. At 14000 feet, even a short burst can be tough.
Slowly and steadily we reached the Y junction, where one road takes you to Bum La pass and the other one to Sangetsar Lake.
Need for tea was rising desperately. Luckily there was an army canteen nearby where we got piping hot cups of it. And all for free!
An hour’s drive from the Y junction and we were at Bum la pass. It looked like the army had set up camp in a land of snow. All i could see around were snow-clad peaks. Although Bum La pass was just a few hours from Tawang, you could sense the isolation of the place. Life here did look pretty harsh.
As we got down from our vehicle, an army jawan approached us. We introduced ourselves and when he came to know my friend was from the armed forces, he immediately took him to meet his superior. More tea was in the offing.
When my friend joined us, we were led to the Indo – China border zone. Near the border was a rock symbolizing peace between India and China. There was a point where you could actually stand on the Chinese end.
Note: Photography is not permitted inside the sensitive area, for obvious reasons. All the photographs in this post are from the route.
As I was poring through the binoculars, scanning the other side, more uniformed men joined us. One of them was the captain, the man in charge of the entire camp. A tall man with a composed demeanor, he very much looked like a material of the elite NDA that he had passed out of. He invited us to what looked like an army guesthouse.
Refreshments were offered. Over tea, potato wraps and a sweet dish, he told us how lucky we were to make it to Bum La pass this time of the year. As usually the roads are buried in snow.
In season time when tourists thronged the place, someone or the other faced issues due to lack of oxygen. Riding from Tawang, around 8000 odd feet, to the pass at 15000 feet means a rapid gain in just 2 hours.
The army apparently undergoes a proper acclimatization process before being stationed here. Luckily we hadn’t really felt the effects of thinning air despite being there for a good hour and a half.
As we were saying our goodbyes, he told us how much he was looking forward to meeting his family. His leave was due soon.
It is in moments like these when you feel a deep sense of gratitude towards the men who guard our borders. Not only are they battling the elements in such a remote place, but also separation from family and friends. Despite their daily struggles, they received us warmly and showed such hospitality.
I thought to myself, isn’t that the hallmark of great men?