Guwahati a Saddle Pass, India

A Worldly Journey to the Sacred Canyon of Sela

turns of faith
Faithful at Buddhist pagodas on the side of the road leading to Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh.
a military crest
Row of Indian military buildings perched on a ridge, a few miles from Sela Gorge.
Curves & Countercurves
Turns and turns of the NH13 mountain road, in the vicinity of Sela Gorge.
4 saddle
Truck travels along the mountain road, a mere 4 km from Sela Pass.
Expressionless remembrance
Motorcyclist poses by the Buddhist portico of Sela Gorge.
Tibetan Buddhism in the wind
Detail of the Buddhist portico of the Sela Pass.
Bro: Saddle Pass
Signs in the vicinity of the Buddhist portico of the Sela Gorge
shelter with tea
Clients and owner inside the tea house on the edge of Sela lake.
For 25 hours, we traveled the NH13, one of the highest and most dangerous roads in India. We traveled from the Brahmaputra river basin to the disputed Himalayas of the province of Arunachal Pradesh. In this article, we describe the stretch up to 4170 m of altitude of the Sela Pass that pointed us to the Tibetan Buddhist city of Tawang.

Several groups were leaving Guwahati, the capital of Northeast India, for different itineraries through different provinces in the region. The night before, John, the guide for the state of Arunachal Pradesh informed us that, due to the requirement of our route pointing to the Sela Pass, we had to leave the hotel at 5 am, three hours before the rest of the delegations.

We were already having a good sleep deficit. We stared at each other in a shared panic, but at the appointed time we entered the lobby and greeted for the first time the four other participants on the trip: Annapurna, English; Stephen and James from USA and Peter from Canadian.

At 6am we were still in the lobby waiting, we didn't quite know what. Since breakfast was about to open, we took the opportunity to have it. It wasn't until 7am that John showed signs of life. He explains that one of the drivers had not shown up and had gone looking for him. Finally, at 7:15 am, we got into our cars and left.

We snake through the urban sprawl of Guwahati. For a short time. We all need to buy SIM cards. A native of Tawang, John reckons he would resolve the issue along the way. But every time he stops, he's told in stores that he can't. We stopped once, twice, three, four times.

The GS Road, from Guwahati, Assam, India

Traffic on GS Road, the most important road in Guwahati.

On the fourth, in a shabby little shop tucked away in a basement, two young Assamese accept the task there. But they take their time. There were four telephones for foreigners, and four required activations, each with endless procedures.

In that alone, it's been forty minutes. While we were waiting, we photographed the action in the barbershop next door and a good number of residents from the houses around it.

With the phones operational, we're back on the road. We lost sight of the outskirts of Guwahati and gradually entered the alluvial and tropical plains of the state of Assam.

It was filled with endless rice paddies interspersed with villages and hamlets. Some Hindus, others Muslims. Many of them that the Delhi authorities consider inhabited by Bangladeshi immigrants of various generations and who want to legalize or expel, a controversy that has revealed the main powder keg of this region.

We crossed the great river Brahmaputra. We advance parallel to the Kameng, a tributary from the Himalayas that gives in to Brahmaputra perpendicularly. We get closer and closer to the tropical foothills of the mountain range.

The rice fields give way to large plantations of the famous Assam tea. We see women in colorful saris working between the vegetable rows under the controlling gaze of the foremen. Other employees cycle pastry shops along the plantation's vertebral earth path.

The exoticism of that vision and the almost extra-planetary fame of Assam tea leaves us all in a frenzy. We plead with John to stop. The guide replied that we had started two hours late and that the journey to Dirang – where we were going to sleep – was long and complicated. It didn't make us comfortable then. On his return, in a somewhat syndicalist reaction from the photographers, we even forced him to give in.

We continue along Chariduar – Tawang Road, curve after curve, the next one as tight or tighter than the previous one. We ascend along the bank of the Kameng which we follow through countless wild slopes of the Himalayas.

At first, we see them covered with small palms, raffia, bamboo sub-forests, banana colonies, a much more prolific fauna of the tropics. It strikes us as they become less dense, lush and lush as the altitude increases.

On one of the countless hills he had to overcome, one of the used Innova Toyotas that John's company (like so many others in the region) was proud of gives itself. We had to stop for it to cool down.

The stop allowed a spontaneous interaction in nature, which we had been looking forward to for a long time.

Half an hour later, functional mechanics – not properly recovered – we ascend another good few hundred meters from the Himalayas.

We leave the steep tropical slopes and the Kamenga. We then pass the wide flow and the valley carved out by successive years and monsoons and floods of the Tenga, another fluvial colossus from these places on the imminence of Bondila.

Delays, Sim Card stops and malfunctions, all together, lost time had made John stretch the rope of the trip to inconceivable limits. It's okay that in each forced break we took the opportunity to drink milk tea or nibble on any snack. In any case, at four in the afternoon we still hadn't had lunch.

Dirang houses on the banks of the homonymous river, Arunachal Pradesh, India

Panorama of Dirang on the way between Guwahati and Sela Pass.

John pulled up somewhere along the road between Bondilla and Dirang, 2km from Kamalanchan – so dictated a kilometer mark. There he granted us the meal and rest for which we were already despairing.

The establishment turned out to be picturesque, tucked away in a shack with a stripe painted inside in blue tones, with tables covered in unpretentious linoleum design.

A young mother and daughter ran the business from the counter at the entrance, surrounded by soda bottles, appetizer packages, egg cartons, instant noodles, and even great terms of tea and coffee. Above the two and the merchandise, a framed photograph of the Dalai Lama blessed their business and their lives.

With the hunger with which we had arrived, we all simply said yes to John's somewhat imposed suggestion that we eat dal baht, the most classic of popular Indian dishes, combining rice, lentils and other vegetables.

For Annapurna Mellor, the blonde Englishwoman, white with a fragile look but very adventurous who followed in our car, was perfect.

"Well, my name is apparently because my parents conceived me during the Annapurna Circuit, at least that's what they explained to me." Because of her name but also because of the attraction and love she felt for Asia and Buddhism in particular, Annapurna was a vegetarian and an inveterate connoisseur of Indian cuisine, such as Nepalese and Tibetan.

It was already cold. While we waited, we sat for a few minutes chatting around a fire. From there, to the detriment of everyone else's sins, we realized that Peter and James maintained the same offended divas posture they had taken from Guwahati. And they did little more than complain.

Os Dal Bhats They arrived. Each crowned with his daddy golden and crispy. To John's delight, they were gone in a flash.

Passerby by the Buddhist-Tibetan portico of Dirang, in Arunachal Pradesh, India

Passerby passes through a Buddhist-Tibetan portico of Dirang.

We arrived in Dirang at nine in the evening, six hours later than scheduled.

At eleven, we went into battery charging mode. Ours and all the electronic gear that we are forced to carry on our trips.

Rest lasts what it lasts. We wake up again before the chickens. After an early-morning breakfast, John and the two drivers exchange the troubled Toyota Innova for a jeep.

We took advantage of the road truce to explore a bit of Dirang. We ended up being seduced above all by the religious gaudy of its streets, decorated with successive lines of Tibetan prayer flags that the wind makes shiver and that shine against the sun already peeking over the mountains.

Dirang street, city of Arunachal Pradesh, India.

Dirang street decorated with fluttering Buddhist banners.

No sooner does John emerge with the jeep than we return to the road. This time, for a change, we stopped less than 20km later.

John had planned a strategic stop at the Nyukmadung War Memorial, erected at the exact site of a battle in the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, when Chinese army forces infiltrated India due to lingering disagreements over the definition of borders between the two countries in the region.

During subsequent years, the natives preserved the custom of stacking stones in honor of Indian soldiers killed in battle. Later, the memorial we witnessed would be erected, undoubtedly Buddhist, accessible by a portico and a staircase leading to a stupa at the center of an intricate and colorful profusion of prayer flags.

Buddhist Pagodas at Nyukmadung War Memorial, Arunachal Pradesh, India

Buddhist Pagodas at Nyukmadung War Memorial, erected in honor of Indian soldiers perished in that local Sino-Indian conflict of 1964.

It wouldn't be the last war memorial on the way. Much less would it be his only vision with a warlike genesis.

We were a mere 45km from Sela Pass, the highest point on the itinerary, both because of the 4170m summits it is located on but also because of the religious significance of the place.

For much of that distance, the NH13 ascends at a good pace and wriggles into dozens of meanders, some of them so tight they feel like we're going backwards. At this altitude, vegetation is scarce. Some yaks crossed with cows feed on what little they find.

Yak by the side of the road, on the verge of Sela Gorge

Yak on the side of the road, in the vicinity of Sela Gorge.

But what stands out the most is the profusion of military encampments and camouflaged magazines scattered through the valleys and slopes below and even above the road. And the number of caravans and military trucks that force us to pull over to the edge and overtake us at great speed.

House robbed, door locks. As the Nyukmadung memorial in November 1962 has long witnessed, it was precisely through the Sela pass that the Chinese forces invaded and surprised the Indians.

With the Sino-Indian border to the northwest of the Himalayas still in dispute, India has not only not lowered its guard but has strengthened it exponentially, both below and beyond the Sela Pass.

Indian military complex by the NH13 road

Indian military buildings on the edge of the hypermilitarized NH13 road.

As a result, this canyon, sacred to Tibetan Buddhists who believe in the scattered sacredness of more than a hundred lakes in the area, has long been surrounded by tents, military equipment and camouflaged soldiers.

And yet, the Sela Pass itself remains a scene apart. A raging wind blows when we reach it. It flutters and spreads the tangle of Buddhist prayer flags from the passageway over the road.

As soon as he gets out of the car, John installs his flag there as a way of thanking him for the trip there having been blessed.

Motorcyclist in Sela Gorge, Arunachal Pradesh, India

Motorcyclist poses by the Buddhist portico of Sela Gorge.

The Sela Pass marks a kind of lifeline for most of the inhabitants of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, as it is the only passage between the Tawang region and the rest of India.

Indian Military at Sela Gorge, Arunachal Pradesh, India

Indian soldiers on duty in Sela Gorge.

The frigid wind keeps two soldiers posted there in the comfort of the building that welcomes visitors. More than just soldiers, they are on duty at the bar and they are the ones who serve us milk teas providential. We went back outside and enjoyed the eccentric beauty of the portico for a while, buffeted by the wind and some snow lifted from the ground.

From time to time, travelers by car or even on a motorbike park and have themselves photographed in front of the portal. Then follow your course. some in the direction of dirang. Others in Tawang's. That's where we continued.

Lake of Sela, Arunachal Pradesh, India

The semi-frozen lake of Sela, in the vicinity of the homonymous gorge.

We cross the portico on foot. On the other side, we find one of the 100 sacred lakes of Tibetan Buddhism, covered in a layer of thin ice and enveloped in a yellow, soaked soil that has hardened the winter.

John knew a lady who owned a teahouse across the road from the lake, Dima, that's what the owner was called. He went in, greeted her with feeling, ordered a milk tea and they chatted for a few minutes.

Interior of Tea House on the edge of Sela Lake, Sela Gorge, Arunachal Pradesh, India

Clients and owner inside the tea house on the edge of Sela lake.

It seemed to be better in that tea house that in the car and milkteas are never too much. Accordingly, we all followed the guide's example. Upon entering, Sara and Dima realize that they are wearing practically identical winter jackets.

Sara points it out and, when she smiles, she leaves the lady at ease for the reaction she liked. The two end up laughing out loud as I photograph them side by side.

We were beyond Sela Pass. Who crosses Sela wants to reach Tawang. We only had 70 km to go. A last mere three hours on the way.


The authors would like to thank the following entities for supporting this article: Embassy of India in Lisbon; Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.

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