Trans Arunachal Drive 2021: 2,000 life-changing kilometres in a Mahindra Thar

Nothing in this world excites me more than a road trip. The longer the journey, the better. When the Arunachal Tourism invited us for a week-long road trip, there was no way I was going to pass up on such an opportunity.

By:Updated: Jul 13, 2021 5:55 PM

387 days, locked up indoors all thanks to the pandemic. Yes, there may have been long weekend getaways when permitted. But never a chance for a long, refreshing and exciting break from the monotony. We were kindly invited by Arunachal Pradesh Tourism and JK Tyre on a road trip like none before. The Trans Arunachal Drive 2021 would take us on a journey across the entire state over two weeks. It would allow us to experience the diverse culture, the food, the landscape as well as the brand new NH13, also known as the Trans Arunachal Highway.

The Infrastructure

On my previous visit to Arunachal, getting to the same location where I would start my journey this time was quite an arduous one. Five years ago, to reach Bomjir, the 9.5km Bhupen Hazarika Setu and the 6.2 km long Dibang River Bridge were under construction. At the time, we needed to load cars onto a wooden ferry and ride across the Brahmaputra, followed by driving across a dry patch of the Dibang river bed just to reach Bomjir. Without a 4×4, tackling the terrain seemed impossible and it would take hours to cover even short distances.

Bhupen Hazarika Setu in the twilight
Bomjir Resort Camp Site

Now, however, I was left reeling in my jaw to find the longest stretch of the smoothest tarmac I have ever driven on anywhere in the country. The state government has done wonders to construct these stretches of roads, including the massive undertaking of the National Highway 13— the Trans Arunachal Highway. The 2,400+km route passes through 16 districts of Arunachal Pradesh. It runs from Kanubari in the southeast at the tri-junction of Assam-Nagaland-Arunachal to Tawang in the west. While 15% of the highway is still under construction, the vast 85% that is operational is a ribbon of tarmac that was laid down by God himself. Not only is the road exciting to drive on, but the landscape and the scenery it guides you through will also leave you gobsmacked.

Sela lake at 13,650ft

NH13 has proven to be great for locals for transit as well as the armed forces to get their supplies across where and when needed. Currently, the state is creating a tunnel alongside the highway that would cut down travel time even further. In fact, we were told that to help with the construction, the team building it literally brought a Nissan 1-Ton truck, disassembled it entirely, and reassembled it inside. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.

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Arunachal Pradesh will soon have its first commercial airport in 2022 so getting there would only get easier. Although the hospitality industry is still in its developing stage. From what I witnessed, I never really missed them as the people welcomed us with open arms right into their homes.

The Landscape

We arrived for an Overlanding adventure through Arunachal Pradesh which we were told would be cold, miserable and terrible. It would be the onset of monsoon in the region and regular rain showers would make conditions less than ideal, especially at campsites. That sounded like my cup of coffee, also something I learnt would be difficult to get a hold of in a tea-drinking state. While I arrived only for the middle leg of the journey, I was informed that the first leg witnessed the worst brunt of the showers. But from there onwards, it would only get colder.

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Lake at Sela Pass

Arunachal Pradesh being predominantly a mountainous region. At lower altitudes, we saw beautiful lush green hills on the horizon as we drove along. The higher up we climbed, the landscape changed along with us, getting more and more picturesque. Quite literally the icing on the cake was when we crossed the highest point at Sela Pass, or even at the bucket-list-worthy Penga Teng Tso Lake (PT Tso Lake), where it started to snow. Pictures, videos or any form of media cannot do justice to the beauty of the region. It is a place you must witness first-hand to absorb the breathtaking landscape.

The Journey

While the convoy had set out much earlier than I arrived, I was scheduled to stay only for the middle leg of the journey from Bomjir to Ziro. A mere 3 days of driving, after which I would catch my flight back home. From Bomjir, the drive was fairly straightforward through Raneghat, Yingkoing to Geku on my first day. The Geku campsite was probably the most interesting, right on the bank of the Siang river on a sand bar. The chilled breeze and the beautiful scenery, complemented by locally brewed red tea was everything we could ask for at the end of a 242km drive.

As we eventually retired for the night, I would learn that I underestimated the weather and my threshold for the cold by not using all the warm clothes I brought with me. At 3 AM, the heavens opened up and I will leave you to your imagination what I endured in my summer tent with only a fleece blanket covering me up with temperatures in the single digits.

The next morning I learnt I wasn’t the only one who endured the same, but it provided very little comfort as it continued to drizzle that morning. A thing to note at this point would be that Arunachal is geographically the farthest east part of India. Some parts go further east of Bangladesh which follows a time zone 30 mins ahead of India. So you could wake up in the morning with a mini heart attack that the sun has risen and it’s 8 AM, only to realise it’s only 6 AM and the convoy hasn’t left you behind.

On that day, we intended to roll out early by 7 AM, but we eventually left the campsite by 9. From Geku, we were to take a 131km road through Boleng to reach the village called Basar. However, the morning delay meant that our driving time would be extended by taking longer routes due to the landslides caused by the heavy rains, and parts still under construction would have blocked the main road.

 

Luckily, we had the mighty Mahindra Thar with us for the journey. So the older road involved 3 hours of crawling off-road, on the unpaved route through a dense jungle. On the other side, some of us wanted to turn back and do it again because it was so majestic and exciting, but the convoy kept onwards to the destination. We eventually joined the paved road by 5 pm when it was already dark. However, we reached Basar fairly late, and we spent the night with the locals in their homes getting the authentic experience of Arunachal Pradesh.

The next morning we had the arduous 300+km drive from Basar to Ziro. Till our lunch spot at Gogamukh, the Trans Arunachal Highway impressed us with some of the best roads yet during our journey. However, before our lunch stop in Aalo, we reached the end of the line. The remaining section up to Ziro was the most difficult yet. Paved tarmac came in small stretches, but most of it was an unpaved road under construction.

As it got darker, I was the fourth car in convoy and the staggering traffic forced me and the rest of the convoy to separate from the leaders. I was now invariably leading the rear half of the convoy and visibility was dwindling. Eventually, I could see nothing except what was illuminated by the headlights. Driving on pure instincts, I just soldiered on and the convoy followed. We could have gotten lost or something even worse but we didn’t. Eventually, I saw the tail lights of the leaders to breathe a sigh of relief. We eventually reached before dinner and spent our first night in a hotel. While I was scheduled to head back home that morning, I had other plans. I was consumed by the experience so I decided to extend my trip to the third leg as well for another few days all the way to Tawang.

From Ziro, the journey began down the same route we came the previous night. We then rejoined the good section of NH13 which led us to the town of Pakke Kesang by evening. It was by far the coolest campsite on the journey. Right next to the highway, we noticed our line of tents on a grassland patch all prepared by the advance hospitality team. It was by far the most memorable night of the trip as we partied till we were allowed to, and then called it a night. However, the wet grass meant we needed to be careful of the dreaded leeches. Horrible they are!

The morning again revealed another picturesque view. After breakfast, we left once again to visit the Nyukmadong War Memorial, and then onwards to Shergaon. We camped for the last time on the journey that night before reaching our final halt in Tawang near the Monastery.

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The next day we did a tour around the region as we drove to the snow-capped mountains around the beautiful PT Tso Lake where Pema Khandu, Cheif minister of Arunachal Pradesh would join the drive to the finish line. It was followed by a rock concert featuring a local band playing the rock classics in the middle of a blizzard. One of the greatest experiences ever! We didn’t care how fatigued we were or how cold it was (-5-degrees). It was after a very long time we were all living in the moment. We eventually decided to make our way back to Tawang later that night through the middle of the snowstorm. The next day, we would have a 12-hour drive back to Gauhati, Assam to catch our flight back home.

The Weapon — Mahindra Thar

I was a part of the 32 vehicle convoy supplied by the Mahindra Adventure team for the journey. Leading, guiding and showing us how it’s done was legendary Indian rally champion — Hari Singh. The convoy consisted of multiple Scorpios which had the support crew, but the hero cars that we were provided were a lot of brand new Mahindra Thars.

It might be surprising, but I had never driven a Thar before so I was quite excited at the beginning of the journey to find out what the Thar is really all about.

Rocks, slush, mud, gravel, tarmac, black ice, snow were the elements Arunachal threw at the Thar. But the Thar was always in its element and unfazed. The 4×4 just shrugged them off and soldiered on without a fuss.

I have heard great stories as well as horror stories about the older Thar. I don’t know about the old model first-hand, but the new diesel manual I drove for over 1,800 kilometres felt refined and extremely mature for a hardcore off-roader. It was quite easy to drive, and it browbeat through everything like a tank.

Seemed to be pre-production units, thus some understandable inconsistencies were evident. In the rain, my wipers although did a brilliant job to not ruin my visibility, I wished they wiped further to the right to cover more of the windscreen Secondly, the seats feel good for the most part and are quite durable, but long journeys can be tiresome. Mechanically the Thar felt like it was built to last. But electronically, the ABS or the traction control kept robbing me of power and control. Whether it was on paved or unpaved surfaces. The system would intervene a little too soon or for no apparent reason. It wasn’t to the extent that it would hamper the driving experience, but a tiny niggle that would occasionally creep up to bother you from time to time. However, I’m told most of these issues have been ironed out in the final production vehicles. I will also admit, I was on a personal mission to get my Thar as dirty as possible, and I was quite happy with my efforts at the end.

Thar Number 5, clean as a whistle after being assigned to us.

When we set off from Pakke Kessang, Arunachal’s Director of Tourism, Abu Tayeng joined us in his personal Mahindra Thar and was leading the convoy to Shergaon. Needless to say, the convoy was on a full-on power trip, roads were no longer blocked, and having him give us anecdotes about the land and the locals over the radio was quite insightful.

Abu Tayeng, Director of Arunachal Tourism (Centre)

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Hari Singh (Right) and i, leading the convoy to PT Tso Lake in The Mahindra Thar

However, the bigger power trip for me came on the final leg from Tawang to PT Tso lake. I was given the reigns to join Hari Singh in the lead Thar to guide the convoy. While others had their chance before on the trip, I was quite opportunistic with mine. The drive to PT Tso Lake would be the most exciting section as we would be driving through the snow-capped mountains. Driving the lead car and watching the convoy following you in the mirrors was such a high. Coupled with guiding the even more refined petrol automatic Thar at an elevation of 12,000ft with 2-3 feet of snow on either side. “Follow the tyre tracks and apply smooth inputs” was all I instructions I was given. The rest was done by the Thar, and flawlessly at that. Once we reached the lunch spot, I handed the keys over to the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh who would drive the convoy with his motorcade of even more Thars, to the finish line of the 2021 Trans Arunachal drive.

Locally Brewed

While I mentioned earlier, the hospitality industry is still to arrive in full swing in Arunachal Pradesh. However, while they take their own sweet time to realise what the region has to offer, the locals welcomed us with open arms  My first lodge in Bomjir is an established camp spot, but we only stayed in local hotels on two occasions in Ziro and Tawang. Other than that, we spent nights camping in Geku, Pakkekesang and Shergaon. Every place we visited, the local tribes came out to welcome us. Every tribe put up a show of their local dances, cultural actives and the famous tribal warrior war dances. Overall, the state may have a staple choreography, but if you pay attention, you can notice intricacies and differences between each tribe and how it transitions from across them.

At every campsite, dinner was provided by the local tribes who spent their entire day preparing a feast for us. They truly went out to give us the most comprehensive experience of their local cuisine, and like their dances and performances, the food changed from region to region as well. The locals then woke up in the wee hours of the morning to ensure the 80 odd of us lot were well fed again with a spread of breakfast before we set off the next day. Some of them went out of their way to write handwritten notes for just passing through their town.

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The most authentic experience of Arunachal came when we stayed in the village of Basar. All of us were assigned a hut to spend the night with the locals in their very own homes. A few others and I spent the evening with Tumen Basar and her family. Getting to know them, how they live, work, eat, the local language but most importantly their stories of life in Arunachal. They showed us around their stilt houses build from wood and weaved organic materials. Local houses are built predominantly around a fireplace as the main source of heat which also acts as their kitchen.

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Words cannot describe what the whole nine-day experience was like. It would not have been possible without the organising team. Especially the team from the Motorsports Club of Arunachal Pradesh, and its president — Lhakpa. Lhakpa, a dear friend who doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of “No”. Give him the most unprecedented request, and without hesitation, be rest assured it will be done. Whether you need to extend your stay, change your flight tickets twice in 2 days, request warmer apparel to tackle the cold or more Apong.

I can only imagine what an ambitious and daunting task it may have been to arrange and accommodate the whole convoy. But the team and the folks at Arunachal Tourism pulled it off seamlessly and spectacularly.

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The immense support from the locals and them even cheering us on through the journey as we passed by was quite emotional, to say the least. I have experienced no hospitality service that would go this far out of their way to welcome and treat us the way all of Arunachal did.

Like the Mahindra Thar, Arunachal Pradesh and its people have their own charm that only few can rival. This adventure was bucket-list-worthy and so was the opportunity to meet the amazing people in the convoy. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. It was arduous, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. As the Tibetan prayer goes, ki ki so so lha gyal lo!

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