Best driving destination: Plan your 8-day holiday in Arunachal Pradesh

Drive your way through the best holiday ever with the first part of a series of boutique travel experiences curated by India Trail

bridge over yargyapchu

It's time to break away from regular travel destinations!

Try something different, something new. Agreed, till quite recently, information on the eight states in the northeast has neither been easily available nor reliable. That’s not the case any longer. This magical corner of India is a mix of snow-capped mountains, lush green valleys, plateaus, water falls and forested areas. A perfect place to point to any location on the map, jump into a car or on to a motorcycle and just go! The roadways — the best way to explore the region — is a mix of state highways enveloped with trees, narrow mountain-side roads, muddy roads that can put your driving skills to the ultimate test and flat, seemingly endless roads in the plains.

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Arunachal Pradesh, the largest of the northeastern states has just 0.1 per cent of India's population. But, it has diverse geographies, cultures and food and drinks; it is impossible to experience everything in just one trip. We estimate that you will need a good four months on the road just to cover the various regions of the state. On this particular journey, we take you to one such region. A high altitude valley town that gained prominence in the tourism circuit only recently — Menchuka. It lies near the China border in Shi-Yomi district.

The trip takes you through the plains of the Brahmaputra valley in Assam, to the initial gradual climb up the Himalayas, snaking through the co untryside till we reach the snow-capped mountains near the China border.  

pasighat and aalo

Menchuka: Medicinal Water of Snow

A small hamlet, home largely to the Memba tribe, who originate from Tibet and were once a nomadic tribe, Menchuka is a beautiful town filled with lovely wooden houses, pine trees, colourful prayer flags and surrounded by mountains.

DAY 1: Aalo via Pasighat  A visual treat

Distance: 250 km // Time taken: 8 hours

The journey from Dibrugarh to Aalo, the headquarters of the West Siang district located at about 2,000ft above sea level, on NH5 took us through paddy fields, neatly clipped tea gardens and busy towns. We crossed the mighty Brahmaputra on the Bogibeel bridge, the longest rail and road bridge in India (around 5km) and also the country's first bridge that could withstand strong earthquakes.

landslide clearing

The Inner Line Permit was checked at Ruksin in East Siang district. The air was crisp and chilly as we left the plains and began our climb to Aalo, which is nestled in the blue haze of mountains we can see in the distance.

As we wound through the mountains, we got a bird’s eye view of the awesome confluence of the Siang river, the main tributary of the Brahmaputra at Rengging. Along the road, herds of white-socked mithun watched with mild curiosity. Road repairs post landslides set us back a little. The sun had set when we reached Aalo. We found our way to the homestay where we had home-made wine and local food in the traditional setting, and a good hot bath before going to bed.

The traditional architecture of houses in Aalo is very interesting — most local houses have a big kitchen with a central fireplace, with a fire lit for the most part. This is where all the activity in the house happens.

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Advisory for day 1

* Start at: Dibrugarh, Assam. End at Aalo, Arunachal Pradesh

* Road condition: Good for the most part  

* Terrain: Flat till Pasighat and hilly thereafter

* Lunch Stop: Pasighat

* Must do: Try the local brew in Aalo

hotel in aalo

DAY 2: Aalo to Menchuka 

Km covered: ~ 190 km || Time taken: 8 hours

Narrow, winding roads, mostly damaged or under construction, pose a challenge to even the most skillful drivers. The roads took us through hills that were a tangle of bamboo, tall tree ferns, flowering trees and wild banana plants. At the foot of the hills, the river wound its way to the plains; sometimes serene and sometimes turbulent. 

We were treated to tantalising views of snow-capped peaks. Water flowed from the mountains in streams and majestic falls as we drove further, through Tato, the headquarters of Shi-Yomi. Nearer our destination, the snowy mountains reflected the rays of the sun and the landscape changed to a rugged brown, treeless expanse. We crossed the bridge and rolled into Menchuka. Rows of wooden houses with colorful roofs and prayer flags fluttering in the wind greeted us as we drove to the Gayboo Sona guest house, our residence for the next three days. 

ADVISORY FOR DAY 2

* Start at: Aalo, Arunachal Pradesh

* End at: Menchuka, Arunachal Pradesh

* Road condition: Average to poor road surface for the most part  

* Terrain: Hilly all the way

* Lunch stop: Siko Dido Waterfalls

* Must do: Take a pic near the water falls and wave at our brave soldiers in the military convoys that you will almost certainly cross along the way.

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menchuka monastery

DAY 3-6 Menchuka, the valley of rejuvenation

Wide grasslands, green and brown rolling hills, a river with icy cold water, streams tumbling down the mountain, pine forests, thorny shrubs, wild horses, clear blue skies and cloud-kissed green mountains circled by a range of snow-clad Himalayan mountains—the quiet, pristine beauty of the valley is etched into one’s memory. Menchuka lies 6,000ft above sea level and is just 29km from the Indo-Tibetan border. A border that is inaccessible to travellers.

We visited the 400-year-old Samteng Yongcha Buddhist monastery with its stunning ancient murals, paintings, manuscripts, menacing masks and a large gleaming statue of the Buddha. It was a rough one-hour trek uphill but the view was spectacular. On the way back, we had a picnic lunch by the river and sifted through the river bed pebbles, each with probably its own story to tell, a story that we will never know. If you’re lucky, you might spot a fossil from what was once the Tethys sea bed.

There are other smaller monasteries within the town and a meditation centre in a small house on a hill where we had time to reflect amid the soothing hum of Buddhist chants.

We crossed over the river on a swaying old rickety wooden bridge wondering what it would have been like if the river had been in spate! We trekked to the gurdwara near a spot where Guru Nanak is said to have meditated. You can’t miss having the langar at the gurdwara.

arunachal pradesh

We explored the village where we were staying with its rows of simple neat wooden houses, many with vegetable gardens in the backyard. The locals were very friendly.

Menchuka is a trekker’s delight with trails of varying levels of difficulty and rafting on the Siang for the adventurous.

We opted for a river rafting experience on the slow moving river. The clear water flowing over rounded pebbles, blue skies and rolling clouds, the sunlight reflecting off the ring of snow-clad mountains, the brown landscape and the wooden houses—what an exhilarating scene! We were told that when the river is in spate, it’s a totally different experience.

After each day of activity, the freshly cooked meals and the home-made millet wine, chhang, around the hearth in the kitchen with our hosts and other guests added to the charm of Menchuka. 

ADVISORY FOR DAY 3-6

* Stay: Homestay in the town

* Activities: One major activity each day, followed by a relaxing evening by a bonfire

* Must do: Hike to the monastery, rafting, try the local brew, chanting and meditation at a local house, meet the locals, meet Gayboo, a pioneer of tourism

* Temperature: Expect it to be very cold (-5 degrees celsius to 15 degrees celsius) between November and March and cool for the rest of the year.

going for rafting

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DAY 7-8: Menchuka to Dibrugarh

The cold invigorating air, the azure sky and the shape changing clouds, the chilly nights, the sunlight glinting off the snowy mountains, the camaraderie around a warm hearth at the end of the day.... We were quite sorry to have to return to our bustling life in the city.

We took the same route back as the one described on days 1 and 2. We headed back to Aalo. The off-the-road driving through detours did not seem so menacing anymore and we soaked up the scenery, noticing many things we had not seen on the way up. We had time to stop and pick up plants which we hoped would grow in our homes and to capture photos, too, while we waited at the side of the road for a military convoy to pass. Road discipline is strictly maintained here. A great difference from our city roads. We reached our homestay at Aalo with its vast acreage and colorful flowering plants. The hosts there are accustomed to meeting returning travelers with their exciting stories.

The next morning we started for Dibrugarh, retracing our path past the waterfalls, down the winding roads, halting to take in the awesome spectacle of the Siang river flowing into the Brahmaputra, stretching far into the horizon.We descended onto the plains and finally reached Dibrugarh with great memories and future plans to return and explore other parts of this mesmerising spot. We sleep knowing that tomorrow will be our final day in this part of the country. For now, at least, but we will be back

home stay

ROAD TRIP ADVISORY

1. You require an Inner Line Permit to enter AP. It is easily obtained from the government website

2. You will be on the road for four full days, so make sure you carry comfortable clothes to wear in the car, a small bag to carry your warm clothes

3. While the car might be comfortable, the road surface for much of the journey is not very good and therefore, you should expect a rough ride. The destination more than makes up for it

4. You must carry all your toiletries, cosmetics, medicines and other specific personal effects with you

5. You must carry layered warm clothes. It will be hot while in the plains of Assam and cold while in AP 

CONTACT: India Trail Kohima, Nagaland, Call: 98867 70070; 87876 77636; Email:  rohan.abraham@indiatrail.org; Website: www.indiatrail.org

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