Monday, May 24, 2010


Power returns. I take a bucket bath and dress in everything that's dry in my rucksack. I need an umbrella. Maybe tomorrow, if the rain continues. I make a run for an Chinese restaurant three buildings down on the same street. A notice on the wall forbids smoking and alcohol. Two tables of inebriated chain-smokers provide local colour. I cross the street to a second choice. The choice is up an exterior circular steel staircase. My ascent is watched from the balcony by the owner. I reach the top. He says, "Restaurant closed."
Yes, Tawang is fun.
The last option is an archway lighted with multi-colour bulbs. Can't be the local whore house. Whore houses don't advertise. Possibly a night club?


I am wet and cold. There is a promise that Power will return to Tawang at 7 p.m. One hour to wait and a further half hour for the geyser to heat sufficient water for a bucket bath. The Tawang hotel has mattresses that Indians believe to be orthopedic and a nail-bed Fakir might find comfortable. Normal mortals prefer something with more give than a concrete roadway - roadways liberally spread with bumps. I drag one mattress on to the other, spread the padded cotton duvet off the spare bed on top, change underwear for dry and cover myself with the second duvet and two blankets. How is it?
Cold and damp.


Tawang in the rain does not impress immediately as a party town, wrong vibes.
A few open umbrellas scurry up Main Street. Very few. A bright tartan number covers two soldiers holding hands. A good friend from Assam recommended two hotels. I choose the Tawang as the cheaper of the two. It is a modern building and should be waterproof. Two young women show me a single room at the back on the first floor designed by a specialist in B movie cellar ambiance. The women apologise for that old Indian faithful, Load Shedding. I point out that a window might help. They show me a double room with twin beds and a hot water geyser in the bathroom that will heat water once the Power provider stops shedding load. The room opens off a covered walkway and on a fine day would have a fine mountain view. For now the view is black cloud, rain, parked eight-seater jeeps and even fewer umbrellas.


$7 WallMart waterproof trousers give adequate protection against a light drizzle when strolling slowly round a municipal golf course on a warm summer's evening. I am riding a motorbike (all be it a small one) up a cold mountain in a downpour. Maybe I should be grateful that the pants act as a sieve and break some of the force of the storm - or learn to buy upmarket, say $10, or even $15. The final kilometer into Tawang is a mud slide. Tawang would look less depressing in sunshine - though not much. Tasteless concrete construction is tasteless concrete construction. Cheap paint is cheap paint. My wet WallMart pants should feel right at home.


The ride down from Sela has been too joyous. Punishment is inevitable. Look across the valley and a faint mist smokes the road up to Tawang, a climb of 5000 feet in 34 kilometers through steep fields and villages. The town is shrouded in dark grey cloud. So, now, is the Sela Pass. Down in the valley an iron girder and steel-plate bridge spans true white water. The road up is mostly rock, mud and potholes. The tires slither and bounce. The seat kicks me in the crotch. I got my second wind riding down. Second winds are temporary. Tired? Very...
Rain falls. The road has collapsed in a couple of places. Women road workers carry baskets of aggregate on their heads. Others squat beside the road chipping boulders in the rain. Female liberation to do a man's work – or a machine's work. Children too (why aren't they at school?), armed with a heavy hammer. Their homes, shacks built of rust-decayed tin made waterproof with road tar. Hill people, they grin as I pass, answer my greetings with a lifted hand and a Hi. My anger on their behalf won't improve their lives...


Lunch is rice with vegetables midway down the Pass. Passengers from two eight-seater jeeps crowd the three tables in a tin-shack cafe. Two girls serve and wash plates outside at a hand pump. The girls are joyful and pretty – surely qualifications for Tribal status? I pose for cameras while waiting my turn for a seat. Look, guys, this is me with that bearded foreign Oldie and this is so-and-so sitting on the seat of his bike. The photographing happens everywhere – and more often now than in the first weeks. People recognise me from TV and newspaper coverage. Fame? I don't believe so. More a freak status. That's OK...



The mountain has got bored with being kind. No more gentle slopes, more a sheer drop and an end to the good road (good as in reasonable rather than good as in actually good), mostly dirt with 350° hairpins ripped to bits. Yaks grumble good-naturedly at being requested to move aside. Brave enough to peek over the edge and there's a village within spitting distance. Getting there takes half an hour as the road zigs and zags a half K one way, half a K the other and so on and so on. The first few fields are bare reddish earth. Drop further and a few green shoots grab for sunlight and white rhododendrons are in flower. Down another thousand feet and the fields are carpeted with emerald green while harvest is approaching near the valley bottom, the fall approximately 8000 feet in 38 kilometers - the climb to the Pass from Dirang was steeper by 8 Ks.


The ride down begins in sunshine with an easy stretch of reasonable tar down a glorious upland valley, two lakes on the left, a few stunted high-altitude pines, a proper mountain burn with short, white-water runs over smooth boulders into crystal pools where a worm dangled might tempt a trout. Drop a little and the road begins to zigzag, at first only a few small rhododendrons all in bud, then a couple of deep reds in bloom. Minute almost white, wild flowers speckle the turf, moss on rocks, a few tiny ferns.
Drop further and I am in yellow rhododendron territory, small and bright by the road, tree-size and pale pink through the scattered pines above sheets of drum-stick cowslip primulas the far side of the burn.