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Sat 14/Sun 15 Nov: Birmingham–Calcutta/Kolkata

Flight with Emirates. We stayed at the Oberoi Grand which was more than pleasant – Colin would have been happy not to have set foot outside it.

The weather was something between haze and cloud.

Notes: Prepaid taxis from the airport won’t take bikes; unprepaid are a ripoff. You can arrange a transfer from the Avis desk and get better service at a lower price.

Mon 16: Calcutta–Eco-camp

Niron and Rupak

Indian Airlines to Guwahati where we met Rupak (our guide) and Niron (driver), a friendly pair who would be looking after us for the next 3 weeks. We squeezed our belongings into the jeep and drove to the ‘Eco-camp’, a tent hotel between Tezpur and Bhalukpong.

We had a good meal in the evening during which Rupak broke the news that since the next day’s ride was a long one, we would be getting up at 5am. When we looked at our maps we could see his point.

The proprietor, who spoke excellent English with a discernible brogue, told us of a couple of Dutch cyclists who had already set out for Tawang. Damn! – we thought no one had ever cycled there before. The Dutch appeared to be travelling independently, which made us look rather feeble.

Tues 17: Bhalukpong (175m)–Rupa (1500m) (90km, 2580m ascent) (plus jeep transfer from Eco-camp)

We were up early as ordained and set out by jeep to Bhalukpong on the Arunachal border where formalities were conducted. We reassembled our bikes in front of a gratifyingly large crowd as Rupak presented our documents to the checkpoint.

And we were off! Almost immediately the road started climbing. The haze, meanwhile, had consolidated into drizzle. Unfortunately the road was not in good condition, with lots of washouts and mud stretches where repair work was in progress.

Riding out from
Bhalukpong

After 5km we reached Sipi where there is an orchid farm. By now Colin’s chain was snagging on every pedal revolution on mud (which was almost all the terrain). We eyed it and prodded it; we smothered it in engine oil; all to no avail – Colin’s rhythm was to ride three quarters of a pedal revolution, unsnag his chain, ride another three quarters... and even this was impossible with a pronounced gradient. 10km. We asked Rupak how much of the road was like this: ‘nearly all of it’. We wondered whether we had to abandon.

Now we’re quite happy to have an audience for our more heroic endeavours, but when we’re finding ourselves unable to ride our bikes, we would really prefer it if no one was there to see us. Concern was painted on Rupak’s and Niron’s faces. 15km.

This was the end of the roadworks, and so of the clingy mud. Colin started finding he could ride again. Immense sigh of relief.

The road climbed and climbed through drizzly jungle. We passed Sessa, a poor-looking village, and the drizzle firmed up into fog. We continued climbing to our pass for the day, the Nechi Phu (1740m, 50km from Bhalukpong), where there are tea-houses by the road. Rupak brought us cheese sandwiches from the jeep, and we poured hot sweet spiced tea down our throats.

Some austere individuals claim not to like the Indian spiced tea, and Tracey (who has slight hair shirt proclivities) tires of it eventually. Rupak, as a true Assammese tea-connoisseur, disparaged it in terms we might ourselves use of Cypriot wine; but Colin has an insatiable love for it.

It was easy going at first after lunch as we dropped to the Tenga valley, emerging from the fog earlier than we had expected. From then on it was a rolling ride along the valley to Rupa. The vegetation was no longer jungly, but a mixture of scrub, crops, and deciduous forest.

After a while we saw a couple of bright red cyclists on the road ahead of us. Slowly we gained on them, and eventually caught them up. They were Eric and Carla, the Dutch couple we had heard about. They were indeed unaccompanied. They had smart gear. They were laden like we never have been.

We perhaps did not cut so dashing a figure, with baggy trousers and inexpensive bikes and a jeep to carry our belongings. We chatted to Eric and Carla for a while and with twilight looming set off for our destination.

There are a few small roadside settlements on the way and Tenga itself almost qualifies as a town, though it is more military than civil.

A little beyond it the road turns right following a steeper valley (the route to Bomdila), and before much height has been gained there is a bridge to the left with a sentry post (and soldiers) which you must cross for Rupa. The climb to a shoulder is unwelcome at this time of day, and we paused to fit lights.

This was hardly necessary because Rupa was just around the corner. We dropped down to it and continued to the Upper Bazar where our hotel for the night, the Snowland, was located. It was a simple but comfortable place, more guesthouse than hotel, and no doubt the pinnacle of luxury in the valley.

Notes: Yes, we really did climb nearly 2600m on our first day. At the time it was Colin’s third highest daily ascent.

There is a modern concrete hotel in Bhalukpong, the Kameng Inn, which advertises an air-con restaurant.

Eric and Carla were heading for Tenga, which I think they were reaching in 2 days from the Eco-camp, but we never asked them where they stayed in between: we hadn’t seen anywhere ourselves. Their place in Tenga seems to have been less salubrious than the Snowland. We explained to them that the Hero label on Colin’s bike is a ruse, and that the bike at least has the dignity of being a Marin. (Hero is the Indian make of bicycle, with a single speed and solid tubes.)

The problem with Colin’s bike, by the way, was a worn tooth on the small chain ring. It had been good enough for Cotswolds mud...

Rupa is heaving with soldiers.

Young monks

Weds 18: Rupa–Bomdila (2380m) (18·5km, 1015m)

Fresco

Rupak and Niron took us to the gompa at Rupa, where we rummaged around for a while with the sun now shining. It’s quite attractive.

Then we got on our bikes to ride up to Bomdila, a newish town a couple of hundred metres below the pass which gives it its name.

Back to the sentry post and left and – eek! – Colin’s cycle orometer registers a gradient of 20%. It’s not all so steep, but it’s fairly unremitting. If 18·5km is short for a day’s cycling, it’s even shorter as the distance in which to climb 1000m.

Soon we had Eric and Carla in our sights again. We weren’t envying them their load. When we caught them we had another chinwag but declined their invitation to tea because we were looking forward to lunch at Bomdila, which we reached in good time.

Bomdila is quite large with many hotels and shops. It was festooned with bunting and banners welcoming the Dalai Lama who’d visited a couple of weeks previously. Our hotel, the Tsepal Yangjom, served good Chinese food.

During the afternoon we did a little shopping and sat and read, making the most of sunlight which brought little warmth.

Thurs 19: Bomdila–Sange (2920m) (83km, 2050m)

Back to cloud, which was a shame because there would otherwise have been views to the mountains north as we crossed the pass.

It was a short climb to the top followed by a pleasant descent made more attractive by occasional breaks in the cloud. We then followed the Digien valley westwards. At Dirang Dzong we left our bikes for a while to stroll around the dzong itself – a ‘dzong’ is a fortified monastery.

Dirang Dzong

This one was old and atmospheric and full of runny-nosed children.

Dirang village is a few km beyond, and after it comes a string of villages interspersed with barracks. At Sapper we crossed the river and a little later stopped at a tea-house, the ‘Hindu Hotel’ for lunch.

Intrepid heroes

We follow a valley bending north which becomes narrower and more forested. There is a picnic spot just beyond the tea-house, and a little later a chorten with prayer flags at a pleasant viewpoint. Rupak took our photo in the sun. Further up the valley is a hillside scarred by a zigzagging road: there was no doubt that this was where we were going.

The rest of the afternoon was spent weaving too and fro on wide sweeping zigzags. Dusk again found us on the road. We fixed lights and eventually reached the Inspection Bungalow at Sange.

Notes: Sange was formerly spelt Senge and often known as Senge Dzong, although the dzong no longer exists. It does not have a very precise location, being a collection of houses sprinkled along the road.

The IB is basic but acceptable. Sange is cold.

Fri 20: Sange–Jang (2320m) (64km, 1225m) and thence to Tawang (2850m)
 

Sange

The morning dawned sunny, and Tracey took some atmospheric photographs; but by the time Colin had risen the clouds had rolled in.

This, unfortunately, was what the day had to offer. We rode in fog, sweeping more zigzags, passing an army camp, and eventually reaching our pass: the Se La (4080m).
 

Se La at midday

There’s an ornamental arch and a tea-house at the summit (which was hugely welcome, and where we had lunch, and which we were reluctant to leave), and then the road drops, gently at first passing a couple of lakes, then more steeply. The temperature was –1° for the first half hour of descent and our gloves were inadequate. We tried every trick we could think of to warm our hands, but eventually the cold lessened and our fingers regained their feeling.

The road crosses the stream and becomes prone to rockfall until passing a war memorial and then begins another section of steep descent, reaching the village of Jang, our intended destination for the night. The inspection bungalow there turned out to be full of inspectors, but Rupak mentioned as a possibility that we might drive on to a warm comfortable hotel at Tawang. We leapt into the jeep and waited to be taken there.

Note: I don’t think we made a note of the name of the hotel, which was some way out of town. The tea-house on the Se La advertises lodging.

Descent
from Jang

Sat 21: Jang–Tawang (42km, 1100m)

Jang hairpins

This may not be in the very best style of cycle touring, but we got back into the jeep and drove to Jang to continue where we left off. Fortunately it was a warm sunny day.

Below Jang is an impressive flight of hairpins. A turnoff eastwards along a dirt road leads to the Jang waterfall which is an attractive sight though hard to photograph because it faces north: it carries the stream we’d followed down from the Se La.

There are some attractive houses, prayer flags fluttering, just above the bridge. Proper stone-built houses in these parts are generally part of monasteries, so maybe that is their origin.

There is a military placement at the bridge discouraging curiosity, then a long climb, not too hard but with an unwanted drop after a shoulder. As you pass through a village if you look to your right there are painted rocks on a stream course.

We were back at Tawang for lunch and we strolled around during the afternoon.

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