By ROGER ALLNUTT
India holds a special fascination for many travellers and first time visitors tend to be drawn to famous landmarks like the Taj Mahal as well as regions like Rajasthan and Gujarat and the big cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata. Those looking for a relaxing holiday often choose the former Portuguese enclave of Goa and the adventurous head for the slopes of the Himalayas.
Over the years these destinations have been enhanced by the availability of excellent hotels many belonging to chains such as Taj Hotel and Oberoi. The chance to stay at old maharajah’s palaces, now hotels, is an opportunity to indulge in luxury and splendour at reasonable prices.
In recent years the Indian tourism authorities have been looking to expand the infrastructure required to entice visitors to new areas of this huge country but there is still a long way to go until roads in most rural and less developed areas and hotels are of a standard to encourage higher-end travellers.
One of the regions where money is being spent is the states of north-east India; stretching north from Kolkata to the Himalayas while being bounded by Myanmar, China, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Although the region only accounts for about four per cent of the population in the past year around 28 per cent of the tourism budget was allocated to the region.
There are eight states of which possibly only two, Sikkim and Assam are well known to travellers. The others comprise Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura. West Bengal, where the large city of Kolkata is located, is also usually considered as one of the north-eastern states.
In January 2013 the Indian tourism officials organised an international tourism mart in Guwahati, the largest city of Assam. This was so successful that they decided to hold another mart in October 2013 centred on the ancient town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh the most northerly of the states and close to the China border.
Arunachal Pradesh is remote and getting about is not easy. To reach the tourism mart at Tawang required either a one-hour helicopter flight from Guwahati or a long 17-hour road trip of around 550km (with overnight stop) over very poor roads.
The helicopter flight to Tawang was initially over the flat plain of the Brahmaputra River which flows through Assam and over rugged mountainous country to the foothills of the Himalayas. From the helicopter numerous villages perched on hilltops could be sighted and terraced fields have been carved out of the steep slopes. The helicopter was greeted by a small group of monks, some very young, all dressed in traditional robes.
Tawang, with a population of around 40,000, clings to the sides of a number of hillocks and is a pretty town with a backdrop of snow covered peaks. It is just over 3,000 metres above sea level. It would be bitterly cold in the long winters but in October was still pleasantly warm during the day. Arriving from sea level at Guwahati to Tawang took some time to adjust to the thinner air and I was careful not to move too quickly.
As with many Indian small towns Tawang is a jumble of narrow streets, small shops, markets, lots of animals, religious sites and, due to ever-present concerns about nearby China, home to a huge contingent of soldiers. The shops displayed an amazing array of merchandise and I was taken by the wonderful displays in chemists, electrical goods shops and the prevalence of tailors (I had a torn shirt collar repaired perfectly for less than a dollar). Prayer wheels are a common sight. Everyone seemed to have a mobile phone.
The highlight in Tawang is the famous monastery, an important seat of Mahayana Buddhism. The monastery of the Gelupka was founded in the 17th century and is the second largest in Asia after Lhasa and the largest in India. It has an imposing three-storied assembly hall and a nine-metre-high golden statue of Lord Buddha. I was fortunate to visit on a day of special celebration when a huge crowd assembled to be blessed by a senior monk who previously had been President of Tibet. The library contains ancient books and manuscripts including gold inscribed Buddhist scriptures.
Close to the monastery are a couple of large nunneries. Just outside Tawang is Urgyelling Monastery which is considered sacred as it is the birth place of Thangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama, the only Dalai Lama born outside Tibet.
Back in Tawang there is a large War Memorial honouring the 2420 Indian martyrs of the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict in the nearby ranges. At dusk each night there is an impressive changing of the guard ceremony complete with immaculately dressed soldiers and the sound of a lone bagpiper.
Scenically the area round Tawang is quite dramatic. Nearby are waterfalls and natural lakes like Sangetsar Lake known also for its snow pigeons and musk deer. However some places are up at 4250 metres which is taxing on the heart.
Driving to one of the waterfalls our vehicle passed groups of labourers with picks and shovels trying rather fruitlessly to patch up the roads, while women were squatting among piles of large rocks breaking them into smaller pieces. Amazingly we came across a group of about eight women sitting by the roadside chatting and busily knitting what appeared to be either caps or socks.
Tawang and other parts of Arunachal Pradesh are at this time mainly attracting religious tourists or those wanting to explore the wonderful mountain walking trails. Although new hotels are being built – two opened just before the tourist mart – many are quite basic and often without hot water. However prices are inexpensive usually around $20 per night. There are a number of restaurants including vegetarian but the range of food is limited.
For more information visit the www.incredibleindia.org or call +61 2 9221 9555
The Government of India Tourist Office has an office in Sydney at Level 5, 135 King Street, Sydney NSW 2000