With all the madness this year, a drive through a state whose tag line says ‘Gateway to Serenity’ wasn’t something I was going to miss. Plus, earlier this year, I had the pleasurable of driving the new Mahindra Thar in the Thar desert, and so I was only too happy to get behind its wheel again.
The inaugural Trans Arunachal Drive 2021 was organised by Arunachal Pradesh Tourism, in partnership with Mahindra Adventure and JK Tyre, to promote the unbelievably scenic state. The 15-day drive through Arunachal Pradesh traversed from east to west, across 16 districts, and was split in three zones – Eastern, Central and Western.
We opted for the final Western zone, which had some exciting high-altitude driving to Tawang, over the legendary 13,700ft Sela Pass. The route passed through some snowbound tracts, and I simply adore the cold and snow.
Joining The Convoy
The long flight from Mumbai took me to Dibrugarh, Assam, the nearest airport for our starting point in Ziro, Arunachal. It was an eight-hour drive to Ziro. Good roads and some spirited driving enabled me to join the 32-car convoy of new Thars and Scorpios at their lunch stop. We travelled together to Ziro, in time for a colourful cultural event organised by the tourism ministry. The participants were an exciting mix of journalists, ex-rally drivers, influencers and, of course, the camera crew.
Ziro To Pakke Kessang
I was assigned a red Mahindra Thar diesel-manual on my first day, and it was aptly named the ‘Adventure 2’! I received the car covered in gunky mud from the first two legs of the journey. I saw it was in need of some desperate TLC and I didn’t shun that. If only I had known how futile that task was to be though. Soon after heading to the quaint little town of Ziro, a small group (me included) split off for an off-road trail in the nearby woods. The trail comprised of mud and slush, and was an amazing opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Thar’s off-road capabilities. The SUV blazed the trail without breaking a sweat, though it was once again caked in mud.
Later that morning, after refuelling, we set out for Pakke Kessang. The road was a mix of paved and broken roads, and mostly hilly. Unfortunately, a few of the cars, mine included, had been topped up with a poor mix of diesel, which caused them to move into ‘limp mode’ that drastically cut power. On the harsh terrain, not having enough power was a huge handicap and despite the service team’s best efforts, the fix took some time. Thus, for the rest of the day, I was handed one of the Scorpios. The shift surprised me with the revelation as to just how much better the Thar’s body roll was contained.
The rest of the day went off without a hitch, and the lush, green scenery really elevated my spirits. Post lunch, we thoroughly enjoyed cruising along swanky new roads, perfectly carved into the mountains. We ended the day at a campsite in Pakke Kessang, located in a rolling field in the middle of nowhere. The locals regaled us with a dance performance and for dinner we got a taste of some exotic local delicacies.
Pakke Kessang To Shergaon
I woke up to the sound of light rain the next morning and found the valley covered in mist. We were served some hot, local red tea to kickstart the drive, and the breakfast stop was around an hour’s drive away. After packing my things, I hiked up to the parking area and saw something that made me grin – ‘Adventure 2’ was back and waiting for me.
The roads were good and the convoy radio informed us that they would stay this way for the rest of the day (save for a few patches). With the Thar now gliding on the smooth asphalt, the next few hours were a breeze. En route, we crossed Seppa valley, one of the largest in western Arunachal. It was like driving across a painting, with lush mountains on either side and a meandering river cutting through the valley.
Seppa Valley looks like a painting come alive.
Good things never last. After our lunch stop, we came across a long section of the road that was under construction. It was full of sand and gravel, and with a steep gradient. I was in the front of the convoy and we set a dogged pace till we reached a better stretch, partly down to the fact that we could keep up momentum. Though some of the cars further back had to deal with traffic and engage four-wheel-drive at times.
Bad times never last either. The rough patch of road faded into an amazing ribbon of smooth tarmac, with a series of hairpin bends carved down the mountain. I can say now that there are not many cars that could get you to the pass with as much ease as the new Thar.
The smooth roads from Pakke Kessang to Shergaon were a joy to drive on.
It was smooth sailing to the campsite in Shergoan and we reached before an early eastern sundown at around 5:30pm. The village was ready with a lively greeting party for us, which was followed by a small cultural show. Dinner was one of the best on the entire trip, with local delicacies like thukpa, fish soup and some authentic, delicious momos.
Shergaon To Tawang
This was going to be a challenging day, in terms of the route we were taking. After an early start from Shergaon, we had to go through some really broken sections of road to get to Mandala Top – our first stop for the day, which was at a height of just under 10,000ft. Up here, the fog was so dense that we couldn’t even get a clear view at the famous Buddhist prayer walls (comprising of a 108 stupas), though the mountain top had a calm feel to it nonetheless.
From here, we headed off to our lunch stop at a Nyukmadung war memorial located near Dirang. We paid our respects at the memorial and later interacted with one of the local MLAs who had come down to greet the entire convoy.
At 13,700ft., Sela Pass is one of the highest motorable roads in Arunachal.
Our next destination was the well know Sela Pass – one of the highest motorable roads in Arunachal. As the drive went on, and we got out of the tree cover to start the climb to Sela Pass, it became clear that this would be very different from the Mandala top we visited earlier in the day. As we climbed, we got our first glimpse of snow, scattered on the side of the road. The snow got thicker and thicker as we went higher, till we were completely surrounded by it. The sun – just over an hour from setting – provided a majestic orangish hue that starkly contrasted the white peaks and blue sky. The drive up was exceedingly picturesque and as we reached Sela Pass – located 13,700ft above sea level – it started snowing. We only had a short while to get out and take in the scenery and weather, due to the quickly diminishing day light. Though those few minutes were enough to get me excited for the next day, where we would spend most of the day in snow cover.
The drive down to Tawang was nice. However, the loss of daylight and the descent out of snow meant we were all keen to make it to our night halt and get some rest for the next day, when we were to head to Bumla Pass.
Unfortunately, once we reached Tawang and gathered for dinner, we were informed that going to Bumla (which is a challenging drive in the best of times) wouldn’t be possible due to the heavy snowfall. Instead, we would be going to the Sungetsar Lake before stopping at the PT Tso Lake, where Arunachal Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Pema Khandu, would receive us.
Tawang – Sungetsar Lake – Pt Tso Lake - And Back
The new plan for the day was a late start from Tawang, with our lunch stop at the Sungetsar Lake (also known locally as the Madhuri Lake for its appearance in the movie Koyla). From there, we would go to PT Tso Lake, where the Arunachal Pradesh CM would flag us in and host a small ceremony marking the completion of the drive.
Perched atop Tawang city, the Monastery offers a great view of the surroundings.
The late start gave me the opportunity to walk up to the Tawang Monastery – which is perched at the highest point in Tawang – and take in the sights. This was a very peaceful and calming experience that left me ready for the day to come. We got into our Thars just before noon and began our climb back into the mountains. As we climbed higher into the snowline, we saw just how much the heavy snowfall from the night prior had impacted the terrain. Everything the eyes could see, save for the road itself, was covered in a thick layer of snow. The sight was something to behold and the weather (which ranged from 0 to -6 degC) was something to experience. The freshly fallen snow also provided a new challenge for the Thar to overcome, in terms of driving conditions, as the roads provided very little traction. However, the Thar took everything we threw at it in its stride and kept chugging along. As a driver, at no point did you feel concerned about the Thar’s ability to handle the terrain. In fact, there were times when you could almost forget just how bad the roads actually were.
After almost two hours of rough, snowy roads, we reached the Sungetsar Lake (formed by an earthquake), which was not yet snow covered due to its altitude difference. Looking out over the lake, you would be forgiven if you mistook the area for another country – that’s how unique it was.
After a quick stop for lunch, which was organised by the Indian Army cooks, we headed off to PT Tso Lake, with the CM himself driving the lead car in the convoy. We kept brisk pace going up the mountain, so that we could make it with enough time to spare at the lake.
Tranquil and majestic are words that best describe the PT TSO Lake.
On reaching, we had to park our cars by the road and hike down to the lake, so that our cars didn’t get stuck due to the heavy snowfall at the time. At the lake, I took a moment to take in the tranquil view – it looked picture perfect. I had to step away soon though, to the tents where an audience comprising local news channels, and guests of the Chief Minister and Tourism Ministry were given details by the organisers about our massive drive. This was then followed by the Chief Minister’s address to us. He kept his interactions short and crisp, and then gave the stage to a local band that had come to perform for us.
I can safely say this was the highest altitude I had ever experienced live music at. We spent a lot longer than expected at the lake, thanks to the band. However, due to the almost blizzard-like weather, the convoy was asked to head back to Tawang before the roads got blocked with snow. Driving back down to Tawang was an exhilarating experience (though not everyone’s cup of tea), with visibility being very poor due to the snowfall, it being dark, and the roads less than ideal. The Thar didn’t put a foot wrong and the entire convoy made it back safe and sound.
A capable off-roader, heavy snowfall and live music at 12,000ft., what more could one want.
Tawang To Guwahati
While the Trans Arunachal Drive 2021 technically ended the evening prior, most of us had to catch flights back out from the nearest airport, which was at Guwahati. So, the last day was our longest drive – just under 500km. The number on its own may not look that impressive, though when taken in the context of the mountain roads, it meant we would be on the road for 15-16 hours. A large part of the drive back was us retracing some of the steps taken to reach Tawang. Only after Shergaon did we drive on some new roads. Though once we got on the plains of Assam, it was fairly straightforward, highway driving.
Over the course of the day, I thought hard about how to summarise my trip, the sights had been awe-inspiring, the roads had been a mix of great and really bad, but what really stuck with me was just how untouched this part of our country is. It almost felt like I had stumbled across a hidden gem. Though exploring Arunachal would not have been half as enjoyable if we didn’t have something as capable as the Thar. So, till the lovely roads get completed, I would highly recommend you get yourself a proper SUV and go explore the beautiful state of Arunachal Pradesh. It truly is a gateway to serenity.