Mechuka in Arunachal Pradesh and Lachen in North Sikkim are the last frontiers of discovery
10/12/2018 12:17:00 AM
|written By : Shobha Tsering Bhalla|
Home has never been a fixed geographical place for me. I suppose I am an existential migrant, like many children of the boarding school era of the 1950s and 60s who were sent far away from home to study when very young. Maybe that’s why every now and then I am assailed by a sudden pang of homelessness even within the comforting walls of my own cosy kitchen.
At moments like these I am seized by a terrible longing – or saudade as the Goans say - to be back in those old familiar places of my childhood which I considered and still consider my home – places where my parents lived and worked and brought us back to every winter to spend our long school holidays. Crisp, wind-blown days of cornflower blue skies and frosty nights aglow from the rays of the moon anchored between two mountain peaks behind our house in a magical place aptly called Medicine Water in the native tongue. A place where rivers cure sadness, as the native Memba and Tagin tribes believe.
These old places of my childhood “home” are Mechukha (Medicine Water) in Arunachal Pradesh and Lachen in Sikkim, two of the most pristinely beautiful travel destinations in Asia. All through my home-sick childhood, they were my Ithaca, my Promised Land - the only reason I endured those never-ending nine months of separation and they still exert a powerful pull on me 45 years later.
And why would they not? This part of Northeast India is like Alaska before the Gold Rush, with electricity and running water. Lachen, the birthplace of my father, is like Tibet before 1950.
My earliest journeys were through Arunachal Pradesh (land of the dawn-lit mountains), the largest of the seven Northeastern states of India – an area of vast virgin acres of forests, rivers and mountains that seem undiscovered since the dawn of time. It has two national parks and its forests account for one-third of habitat area within the Himalayan biodiversity hot-spot, higher than other Himalayan regions.
It was like that decades ago and little has changed, mercifully. The only difference is that many of the main towns and districts are connected by good motor-able roads instead of mule-tracks and tourists who miss creature comforts can find good hostelry in B&Bs and Government rest-houses if they don’t stray too far from civilisation.
The cultural diversity is immense with more than 26 major tribes and over 100 sub-tribes as well as a wealth of majestic snow-capped peaks, verdant hills, blue lakes and frothing, green rivers for rafting – Kameng, Subansiri, Lohit, Siang and Tirap. It is a primitive, fascinating way of life where much has remained unchanged since prehistoric times.
Menchuka is a Never-Never Land, a place so stunning and seemingly untouched by grown-ups because it has all that a child, or even an adult, could want – purling streams to catch fish, bushes to pluck blueberries, fruit trees to climb, snowflakes to catch and ponies to ride. And it has fascinating stories.
After sundown as we children lingered in the last glimmer of twilight, quivering with anticipation for the season’s first snowfall, Tadik our imposing gate-keeper would lift me on his shoulder so that I could have a better view, point to the luminous orb and say in broken Hindi, “Donyi-Polo is looking at you. What do you want?” And I would ask for some childish wish to be granted. Tadik, who looked like a native American warrior with bearskin cloak and bear-skull hat, was an indigenous Tagin, one of the fiercest tribes, but gentle as a lamb and wonderful with children.
The Tagins practice a religion called Donyi-Poloism, literally meaning Sun-Moon. It is an animist religion followed by many of the tribal groups in Arunachal Pradesh (including the Apatani, Adi, Miri Tagin and Nishi tribes). The religion has no written scriptures, but has traditionally been passed down orally from each generation to the next. Believers pray to a number of spirits, deities and souls for blessings, but they principally worship the sun (Donyi) and the moon (Polo) as the visible forms of the Gods.
Membas, who follow Buddhism, form the main group. They are a sub-group of the Tibetan people who speak the Tshangla language and have cultural similarities with Tibetans. Not surprisingly, it has the second oldest Buddhist monastery in the state – the 400-year-old Samten Yongcha monastery - which is located at a hilltop in the westernmost part of Mechukha. On the way to the monastery one has to cross a long hanging bridge over the beautiful Yargyap Chu River, and from there, it’s a 7-km trek to the hill-top. I recall making that trip several times on horseback with my father walking by my side step by reassuring step.
Earlier one had to fly to Mechuka from Dibrugarh in Assam, on an Indian Air Force 8-seater Otter. For 2 hours, the twin-engine plane would glide over narrow valleys, wedged in between tall blue mountains, wingtips almost brushing against the sides of the peaks while we children squealed with excitement, munching on the Cadbury bars that the pilots had conjured out of their pockets. The runway was a large grassy field with only a wind-sock to guide the plane but our landings were always smooth. The airfield is now metalled and longer and plans are afoot to introduce commercial flights in a couple of years.
A metalled road also runs from Akkajan to Menchuka, through the district headquarters of Along, a pretty town with a river that runs through it. Accomodation is hard to come by as this is an army town, but there are some B& Bs which have amenities like washing machines and room heaters. There is also a comfortable government “circuit house” and PWD bungalow which can be booked in advance.
Hardy mountain ponies and mules used to be a favourite mode of transport decades ago, and even now, it is possible to ride on horseback to the MacMahon Line just 29 km away on the Indo-Tibet border.
Of late, motorcycling enthusiasts have been making forays into Mechuka as it provides some of the most challenging rides in the country and para-gliding is another sport that’s catching on. Perhaps now is the time to go to this slice of Paradise before the big tour agencies turn it into another tourist trap.
When to go: The best time to visit is between mid-September and mid-December; and again, from mid-March to mid-June.
What to carry: Sleeping bags, sweaters, mosquito repellent and basic medicines.
Tips: The sun rises at least an hour earlier in this region than in the rest of India. Make sure you set out early, around 5.30am, to cover as much ground as possible.
The most commonly used form of transport is the Tata-Sumo, SUV.
Silapathar is a small market town, 6km from Akkajan where your journey might begin, but it is a good idea to stop here and buy whatever essential provisions you may require for the week ahead. From camera film to music CDs and rubber slippers to oranges and biscuits.
The following websites are useful when planning a trip to the region:
Lachen - The Hidden Shangri-La
Travel, as the philosophers say, is not only about geography, it is also about the people. In Sikkim, especially North Sikkim, the people are as fascinating as the pine-scented valleys, towering cliffs, the waterfalls, snowy-white mountains and the ancient myths swirling around them.
Located at an elevation of 9,022 ft (2,750 m), and a hair-raising 7-hour drive away from the capital Gangtok, Lachen is a cultural Antartica, a land where traditions have survived in their pristine form. Although only 112km, away, there is a world of difference between the bustling capital Gangtok and Lachen, which still exists in a charming cultural cocoon where life has not changed much since people from the Chumbi Valley in Tibet and the Ha province of Bhutan started settling there centuries ago.
Even the architecture hints of its ancient Tibetan linkage. When I visited it after many years I was moved to see the house my father was born in still standing, although renovated with his relatives still residing in it. The old blue-pine walls darkened with age, on a stone base and decorated with bright, multi-hued window frames and doors constructed in the Tibetan style, lending a sense of continuity and belonging to a prodigal visitor. Most of the houses are still built in this manner.
Even the political system of Lachen is different. Despite the establishment of a strong Indian governing system – the Panchayat system - following Sikkim’s integration with the Indian Union in 1975, Lachen and Lachung in North Sikkim were allowed to retain their own form of self-governance, as they were too remote to have the Panchayat system imposed on them. So a form of direct Democracy – the Dzumsa system - similar to what prevailed in ancient Athens, is still robustly followed.
The village headman called a Pipon is elected every year on a one-man, one-vote system. Work and benefits are distributed equally and fairly among the families in the village and disputes are settled in a democratic manner as my father, a proud native Lachenpa always reminded me.
If you go in summer, the village is almost deserted. Because like most communities settled in such high altitudes, herding and pastoral-nomadism is a way of life. Until recently, for instance, the whole village except government employees and shop-keepers would shift to the higher grazing grounds with their entire herd of yak and sheep. Thangu at 13,000ft is where many, including some relatives of mine, have their summer cottages, as it is the last high-altitude village on the way to Gurudongmar Lake, the holiest lake in Sikkim and, at 17,500 ft, the highest freshwater lake in the world.
It is only 27 km away from Lachen and is a stunningly beautiful base for treks to the famous flower-filled Chopta Valley and Muguthang where nomadic people live close to the lunar moonscape of the Tibetan plateau. Travellers can take a break and enjoy a hearty meal here before making their way to the Valley, only 2km away from Thangu by road (or 5km one way as a great day-hike option). This spot is rich in alpine vegetation, including stunning orchids and rhododendrons.
As naturally well-endowed as its next-door cousin Bhutan, to which it is also culturally and linguistically related, Lachen is in many ways more authentic and far more affordable as there is no tourism monopoly, perhaps because fewer tourists come here due to its remoteness.
Lachen was made open to tourists only towards the end of 2000 and since then a handful of options to stay and essential facilities have been established.
There is no proper tourist accommodation beyond Lachen. So almost all tourists visiting Gurudongmar Lake stay at Lachen overnight before proceeding to the lake next morning. And along with the lake, a typical tour also combines a visit to Chopta Valley, a wide beautiful meadow located in-between Lachen and Gurudongmar which is carpeted with rhododendron and cornflowers in spring and snowbound during winter.
Lachen Gompa: The Nyudrup Choeling Gompa is a 20-minute walk ahead of the town, and is best visited either early morning or late afternoon since the doors to the main temple might be closed in the afternoons. It is also used as a Village Hall for welcoming special visitors as it was recently when my sister and I returned after many years to pay our respects to the deities guarding our family’s village. The Gompa enjoys a gorgeous location, with panoramic views of the surrounding hills and countryside.
Gurudongmar Lake: Past Chopta Valley, about 30km north, is the sacred Gurudongmar Lake located right on the border with Tibet. One of the highest lakes in the world, it enjoys a stunning setting, with perennial snow peaks all around. The lake never freezes in the centre even in the height of winter as it is believed to have been blessed by Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) on his way to spread Buddhism in Tibet and China.
Tip: Try not to spend more than an hour at the lake, as the altitude can be dizzying.
Where to Stay in Lachen: Both Apple Orchard Resort (Cell: 09474837640; Tariff: â‚¹9,619, with meals) and Lachen View Point (Cell: 08676513511; Tariff: â‚¹3,000—5,000, with full board) are decent options. In all likelihood, your tour operator will choose a hotel for you.