At some point in the preparations I remembered that after last years escapade I had vowed never to go anywhere again that needed a permit. But it was too late.
We would have had plenty of time were it not for waiting for a work conference to decide exactly whenabouts in our planned holiday dates it was going to schedule itself; in the meantime the first tour company we had contacted went out of existence. You can only really get a permit via a local agent. We had to find another agent, apply for visas, worry about postal strikes, send documents to the agents, transfer money to them, then wait and wait for some labyrithine process of bureaucracy in an obscure office left the paperwork to gather a sufficiently deep layer of dust, whatever they do to issue the permits. Even at the most optimistic estimates, they would materialise only a few days before we left the UK.
Meanwhile the Dalai Lama visited Tawang and the local government rescinded permits for foreign journalists. We hoped they wouldnt decide we were journalists, or, god forbid, spies.
The Road to Tawang
We started with only a very vague idea of the road ahead. You might think that with all our years of experience we might take the trouble to think about what the route might actually entail but our years of experience have only taught us that whatever information is misleading, and to put up with suffering when it inevitably comes upon us. Nevertheless the night before we started the cycling, Colin had taken a more careful look at the so-called information, and had found with a certain amount of alarm that we had a 1700m pass to cross before some additional climbing.
The so-called information consisted of (i) a sketch map of unknown provenance showing some real places, and roads connecting them, but not necessarily in the correct locations; (ii) some plausible looking but not entirely accurate topo maps derived from the 1875 Imperial survey decorated with wild speculations for road locations and fictitious villages ; (iii) an altitude profile for the Bhalukpong-Tawang road, found on the website of a local tour operator who seems in turn to have found it on the website of a German visitor with a GPS; (iv) a list of guesses at distances mined from guidebooks and websites, partly corrected by Rupak. Google Earth did show the Tawang road clearly, but all it could offer for the second part were some waymarks, a very large cloud, and some mysterious routes that appeared one day then vanished later, which in any case were in all probability river-rafting expeditions.
We reckoned we had something like 90km to cover the first day, quite apart from the climbing. After 2 hours we had covered 16 of those kilometres and we were still only at the level of the river. There had been several sections of roadworks where bulldozers were cutting the slopes, which means ruts and backed-up army convoys and total mud. Colins bike did not like the mud and the chain locked up. We suspected a worn inner chainring. There was nothing we could do where there was mud, the bike was totally unrideable uphill. Clearly someone up there was not happy with us.
So we made a sacrifice to the gods of half a packet of custard creams, and lo! the road started directing us heavenwards with a somewhat overenthusistic gradient as if, like us, it couldn't get away from the landslidey riverbank mud fast enough. We climbed through jungle. Thats actually all we could see, just jungle, as the mist, which had at first lent the landscape an attractive air of mystery, thickened into fog. Then it thickened some more and we couldnt even see the jungle, barely the road. So Rupak at the top showing us into a warm tea-house, was welcome. We couldnt afford the time to stay long whether we would finish the ride in daylight was going to be a close call.
The descent was less desperate than it could have been. We belted along the valley up towards Rupa, not a situation conducive to our appreciating the scenery. We had heard that there was a Dutch couple ahead of us, who had somehow got a permit on their own, and we caught up with them on this stretch. Although its definitely the real thing to cycle self-supported, and we envied them that slightly, we never regretted doing this tour with Rupak and Niron. The logistics would have been very hard otherwise, and besides, they made it a lot of good fun too. We slowed to chat with the Dutch Carla and Erik but were pressed for time. The last few km we had to ride in the dark the lights of Rupa a welcoming sight, because we knew that one of those warm lights was a friendly room waiting just for us.
It was just as well we only had 18km to ride the next day, though the distance is less risible than it sounds, as it was all climbing to Bomdila. A strong resemblance to lAlpe dHuez was remarked upon, but Bomdila was felt to be better because it has prayer flags. We had time to ride a bit with Carla and Erik, though I'm not sure if they entirely approved of us, Colin with one pannier, me with a cheap rucksack tied to the rack with a broken bungee and all our stuff being transported in a car.
Oh and then it got harder. I should try to explain about the terrain. It is all mountainous. To get to Tawang you go over a 1700m pass then a 2600m pass then a 4100m pass, crossing ridge into valley and over the next ridge. You might wonder why the roads dont follow the valleys but the first days ride demonstrated clearly enough why roads in valleys are a bad idea. In any case the valleys mostly go completely the wrong direction. The ridge-after-ridge crossing makes the journey exciting: it gives every valley that that lost-world feel when the only way into successive valleys is over increasingly high passes.
Bomdila was most of the way up the second pass, which we made short work of. We dropped into the next valley and slowly climbed through Dirang to Sapper, a pleasant way to spend a morning, before the rest of the ride displayed itself coiling malevolently up a large piece of mountain up the end of the valley. Rupak pointed out a barely visible speck, our destination in Sange. Again, the lights in the darkness at the end of the ride were a friendly welcome.
Sange was over halfway up the climb to the Se La but that had been the easy half. From 3000m to 4100m we would have the altitude, and we had rushed the business of acclimatisation, as Sange was a cold place and there was stuff all to do there so we didn't fancy hanging around making erythrocytes. After a gorgeously sunny start, which Colin missed as he was more interested in duvets, the mist rolled up. We rode countless invisible hairpins in dropping temperatures, with only Rupaks magic tea-flask, endless military convoys and our own feeble jokes to keep us amused.
It was -1 at the top, but theres a cafe with a wood fire. The descent was pretty horrible and there may have been snow involved but all that mattered was strategies for continuing the survival of my fingers for the next few minutes. The lights in Jang in the darkness at the end of the ride were a friendly welcome except they weren't, because the Inspection Bungalow was full of Inspectors and no room for us. So Niron drove us the rest of the way to Tawang, into the darkness and the unknown, Rupak on his mobile in a conversation we couldn't understand except for the bit about "chappatis, rice, dhal, murgh", and with us falling asleep in the back of the jeep like contented children.
We went back to Jang the next day to ride back and complete the route. Notice I have said nothing about the scenery so far and thats not because we are that sort of cyclist that only has eyes for the computer or altimeter, it is because we hadn't seen any. Ill describe now what the descent should look like when visible.
At the top of the pass theres a small lake; the pass leads down a valley first barren, then forested with conifers, with some military camps and a small hut settlement called Kapo. There are yaks here, and ducks. Soon after crossing a bridge our valley falls away into the grand main valley, and the views open out spectacularly. It is all very big. To the right, some snow peaks just visible, the ridge opposite is Tibet, to the left the valley drops slowly with interlocking ridges, into Bhutan. Directly below the road hurtles down to the town of Jang. Right opposite, deep clefts in the rock faces conceal magical cascades. On the higher slopes, you can see gompas here and there, inaccessible. Towards the west, you can see Tawang from miles away, the gompa imposingly sited on a ridgetop.
The road drops steeply to Jang in a frenzy of hairpin bends and keeps dropping towards the river. Once over the other side, it tracks up more gently the rest of the way to Tawang. Jang and the villages on the way are attractive stone and half-timbered traditional houses, with bright prayer flags. Tawang gompa crowns a summit above the town, a large and busy place which will find itself in need of some planning controls if the aesthetics of the place are to be preserved. But I wouldnt hold out too much hope.
We had hoped to ride to Pakang Teng Tso lake, but its close to the border and we didn't get permission. So we rode back a day earlier than scheduled, this time with better luck with the weather and by a lovely coincidence, got to the top of the Se La to find Carla and Erik there. Its no surprise they had been having a harder time than us.
The descent from the Se La to Sapper was an eye-watering 2400m or so, which might be an alluring prospect for some, but in my opinion descents are overrated, being cold and bumpy and tiresome. More to our liking was the rather splendid place Rupak found for us to stay just outside Dirang, and, whats more, the offer of an interesting alternative route back, over the Manda La. It was reputed to be a route that would take us back to Rupa, and it went over a pass, but that was he knew, and it would be as much an exploration for him as it would for us.
The Manda La proved to be a beautiful climb, an extremely quiet narrow winding road, revealing first views of the valley, then of faraway snow peaks Kangto and Gorichen, majestically standing proud of the clouds. We rode through quiet villages, with chillies and maize laid out to dry on rooftops. The road climbed its mysterious way up through slowly changing forests. We could see the notch on the skyline which was obviously the pass, which never looked all that far away but never did it get any closer. It wasnt the pass anyway, the road veered off left and continued to magic more climbing out of nothingness. There is a cafe at the top.
We descended a rougher road through mysterious forests. We could see glimpses of road here and there about the slopes below, like a sort of join-the-dots puzzle. The road bottomed out at Phudung, dived towards the river, leapt across, and bounded up the other side like some sodding labrador. We were not in the mood. In addition nobody quite knew how far it was to Morsing and even if they did they would have been wrong. We played spot-the-road above us, a cruel and futile and irresistible game. The road crossed a shoulder and bafflingly headed up a side valley. After a while Rupak and Niron reappeared. They were lost. There has been nobody around to ask where Morsing was, the km-stones had disappeared or had been worryingly obliterated. Rupak said theyd try again, we trailed along behind, unhurriedly. The valley was almost totally without any sign of settlement; when we saw what looked like a prayer wall far away on an exposed curve of road, we tried not to look at it for fear that the very sight of it would trigger involuntary optimistic responses in our signs-of-civilisation neurons which would ony make the inevitable disappointment the more crushing. Nevertheless, a few km beyond, a few scrappy houses, then the Sumo jeep, with Niron. Theyd found the inspection bungalow, and the man with the keys.
The road continued to do even stranger things. The map marked the road continuing down the main valley, only 20km to Rupa, but it chose instead to head in the opposite direction towards Bhutan, we think and into ever more unfathomable forests. It slunk off our map, and now confident that it could now do what it jolly well wanted, faffed about until it finally found a large valley it liked, came upon a sprawly somewhat concretey village where it morphed into an astonishing 2-lane silky smooth road. One might have though that the Border Roads Organisation with many decades of experience of patching holes and clearing landslides would know better than to venture such a road in a Himalayan valley. Indeed there were already stretches down to one lane where the valley cutting has collapsed. In any case at Jingaon the road loses patience with these tame riverside gradients and heaves itself up the mountainside, contours round a vertiginous half-circle, climbing gradually to a very obvious shiny new gompa on a crest.
From Rupa it was the simple matter of reversing our first days ride. This time round there would be a little less total climbing, but we not exactly fresh nor relishing the prospect of a second riverbank mudbath. We managed it but threw in the towel at Balukpong, as the road was now flat, and flat does not interest us.