It was a freezing cold morning in Tawang; and we were supposed to go to Bumla. We had a reasonably late night at the Tawang Festival. It was the end of October and night temperatures in Tawang were already hovering in the negative. On top of the cold, the local alcohol that we all had in the various tribes’ bamboo restaurants during the festival had a cumulative effect of giving us a high! And I woke up with a slight wobble in my head, as an after-effect of walking and trying to find our car in the night that would take us back to the hotel.
As was customary during the trip, we woke up early but did not leave till very late. After breakfast, we sat in our respective cars and left for Bumla at around 9 am (If memory serves me right). We were later told that the reason for our getting late was due to the permits which felt a little strange considering that Bumla had always been on our original schedule of the Arunachal Pradesh itinerary. Nevertheless, we were finally on the long and lonely road to Bumla and were greeted with a fabulous change of scenery as soon as we left from Tawang.
Since some of us hadn’t had our breakfast, we stopped along the way for some roti sabzi and black tea in a restaurant. After a quick break, we continue the drive to Bumla. A local Tata Sumo has been hired from Tawang specifically for the purpose of us visiting Bumla and around. I spot a lot of bunkers on both the left and right side of the road and am perplexed why there are bunkers so deep into the Indian territory. There don’t seem to be any permanent dwellings and I can’t spot any locals nor is there any sign of a village. There’s a chilling answer that awaits me!
Why are there so many bunkers on the Tawang to Bumla road?
Because the Chinese had intruded as far as Tezpur during the 1962 China-India war and the bunkers were made in a hurry to combat the enemy troops.
I gawked wide-eyed at the driver when he remarked that these bunkers were constructed by the army due to the Chinese aggression. Inspite of having read my history lessons in school, I had no inkling of this fact from 1962. It gave me the chills to realise that the whole of Assam might have been vulnerable to Chinese occupation. I learnt that the Chinese were in Tezpur during October-November 1962.
It was a mind-numbing fact for me to understand that a foreign power had almost captured a town 400 kilometres inside Indian territory! Along the way, there were signboards indicating that photography wasn’t allowed and hence we didn’t stop anywhere along the route till a point called Y Junction. We were in what could be said as ‘lake country’; the region from Tawang to Bumla has more than 100 lakes in total. It was magical to say the least, as lake after lake kept appearing on our drive.
The first lake that we came across went by the name ‘P T Tso’ and was a sizeable water-body with a small hut by the side of the lake. It wasn’t a clear day and hence we were unable to see the reflections of the surrounding mountains in the lake. After that we crossed a pass called Nagu La as the road kept climbing towards Y Junction. The condition of the road was bearable till the Y Junction; where we saw another lake called Nagula Tso.
The roads bifurcate at Y Junction : The road to the right leads to Bumla and the road going to the left leads to Madhuri Lake (Shungatser Lake or Shungatser Tso). Our plan was flexible and we were supposed to visit Bumla first. There was a timing issue due to visit of some officials that meant we would only be able to go to Bumla after 2 pm. After waiting for some time at Y Junction in the fog and cold, we started our 16 kilometre journey towards Madhuri Lake. (I couldn’t help but laugh whenever this name was mentioned; but there was a good reason for it!)
Shungatser Lake appeared different than usual lakes and indeed had a big reason for the strange appearance. It was formed after an earthquake in 1971 which had caused the damming of the river. After that, a flooding in the forest meant that the trees were submerged in the water. What happened after this phenomena is that the trees died and in the present situation the trunks of these dead trees are visible in the water lending Madhuri Lake a distinct feel. The water is placid and clear and on a clear day the reflections in the lake can be really photogenic.
A lot of credit has to be given to the army for creating the excellent infrastructure around Shungatser Lake. There is a lovely park at the entrance of Shungatser Lake with plenty of framed photo opportunities. Among other interesting activities, I personally liked the walk along the periphery of the Madhuri lake courtesy of the proper paved footpath on one side of the lake. There’s also a bridge to cross the different streams and I must say that the infrastructure has enabled this to become a nice picnic spot for the locals of Tawang and around.
The sunshine was abundant once we reached Shungatser Lake; it must have been at an altitude of approx. 4000m and in the fag end of October it was nice to see the clouds part and bring some much needed warmth! There was also a well-equipped canteen in the Park near the lake serving tasty snacks, maggi and tea / coffee for visitors for a nominal charge. Toilet facilities are also available for tourists in a nearby building. Chairs and tables are laid out in the park near the lake and one can take the foodstuffs from the canteen and have a tranquil time enjoying it in pristine surroundings.
What really surprised me was the presence of a gorgeous wooden chalet on the banks of the lake; it was named ‘Shungatser Hut’. Although the door was locked, that didn’t stop me from peeking inside and seeing a perfect home, with warm interiors and furniture. I want to go back and stay in that hut someday, although I have no idea how to book it! The chilly wind even in the stark sunshine caused us to scamper for cover as we kept exploring and walking around Shungatser Lake.
Why is the lake named Madhuri Lake?
Although the official name of the lake is Shungatser Tso (Tso is lake in Tibetan), it is locally popular as Madhuri lake. The entire region used to be a pasture land and was a grazing ground of Shok-tsen village before the earthquake of 1971. A song of the Bollywood film Koyla starring Madhuri Dixit was shot here and that has caused the (almost) renaming of the lake! So while the signboards will all denote Shungatser Lake, the locals and driver used Maduri Lake for the same! In this post, I will use both names Madhuri Lake and Shungatser Lake interchangeably.
After spending an hour or so at Madhuri Lake, it was time for us to head back to Y Junction and resume our journey to Bumla. On one of the signboards, I had spotted the name ‘Zemithang’. I had heard of Zemithang from intrepid travellers and jumped at the thought of us visiting this enchanting place. It wasn’t to be that day, as we were on a fixed plan and had no chance of diverting from Bumla! The signboard at a crossroads also had some other interesting names of a monastery and other passes but I am not sure if civilians are allowed to visit those in this region around Tawang.
We are back at Y Junction from Shungatser Lake. On the way back, we spot some frozen waterfalls too! So, no wonder we were freezing at the lake because end of October means it is actually quite cold! The terrible condition of the road means we take almost an hour to traverse the 16 kilometre distance. We reach Y Junction at 1 in the afternoon and quickly move towards Bumla as the Army waves us on.
The road to Bumla reminds me of Ladakh with the incredible scenery. What distinguishes Bumla from Ladakh is the presence of numerous lakes that keep appearing every 10 minutes or so. The clouds are back again and we have no choice but to close our windows due to the cold winds. We are tottering along the road at almost 4200m and reach a place called Klepta from where Bumla is only 8 Kms away. My stomach grumbles, I’m hungry again after having just had breakfast in the morning and nothing thereafter.
While maggi may be the choice for many who travel in the mountains, I am old fashioned when it comes to food and prefer proper meals rather than eating anything packaged. The hunger pangs would have to wait longer as we weren’t getting any food on the high altitude pass – Bumla! The driver advised us to not click any photographs after Klepta as the army has a strict watch and literally enforces the ‘no photography’ signboards. Our sumo was brought to a halt just before the buildings at Bumla appeared.
Importance of Bumla
In 1959, the Dalai Lama on his way from Tibet to India is believed to have escaped via Bumla (Also spelled Bum La – La is pass in Tibetan). In the India-China War of 1962, the Chinese Army invaded across the Bumla pass. Hence, it can be said that Bumla lies at a strategic location in Arunachal Pradesh. The pass itself is buried in snow for most of the year due to the high altitude location. There were efforts to re-open Bumla pass for trade in 2006. Apart from Chushul in Ladakh and Nathu La in Sikkim, Bum La is the only place where the Border Personnel Meetings are held.
We were supposed to walk the rest of the distance. The ice cold wind hit us as soon as we got out of the Sumo. It was insanely cold and the howling winds only exacerbated the chill! Some Army officers were there who asked us to walk towards the Reception Hut. There was warm water, tea and biscuits in the reception hut. I was pleased to drink the hot chai. After 5 odd minutes an Army officer came and asked us to walk in orderly fashion towards Bumla Pass. He also told us to not click any photographs, especially of the establishments on the Indian side.
Apart from us, there were 3-4 other tourists at Bumla. On the Indian side, the buildings were ‘Bumla Hut’ also called ‘Hall of Friendship’ where the meetings between the Chinese officials and the Indian officials were held. The Army officer walked with us till the border which had a ‘Thank You’ board and informed us that 6 meets between China and India are held at Bumla every year; out of which 4 are organised by India and 2 by China. When we reached the border, there was a ‘Heap of Stones’ that demarcated the border between India and China.
It was a strange feeling. There was no barbed wire or Military with Guns manning the Bumla border and at one point of time we felt it was funny to put our feet in Chinese territory and come back to the Indian side instantly. How stupid of us human beings to make partitions in the land we all should be privileged to inhabit. Won’t all of us be happier to call the entire world our Home?
The ‘heap of stones’ is a symbol of peace which began when the Army Officials of both countries started placing stones as a measure of trust when they started meeting many years ago. Now the heap of stones has grown higher but I wonder if the stones actually impart any trust on either the Indian or Chinese side! There was no one on the Chinese side – apparently their border installations are 3 kilometres away. In the far distance, we could notice an Observation Hut and paved roads in China.
Funnily enough, we are told that photographs of the Chinese side can be taken at Bumla but not of the Indian side! After few more gusts of the cold breeze and some laughs later, we walk back to the Reception Hut and I fill some hot water to drink later. I want to pee before the drive back; there’s a toilet but the water has already frozen and a terrible stench sort of ensures I stay away. There’s a souvenir shop too at Bumla; one of us enters the same. The fridge magnet is priced at 100 Rs, and the cap at 250 Rupees.
We decide to hop into the car and start our return journey. It is already around 3 and we are all famished. There’s still some energy left to click pictures of a lake en-route when the light makes it irresistible for us to enjoy the sight. The Y Junction appears in no time; we huddle inside the warm canteen and order tea and some pakoras; others prefer maggi and momos. There’s also a store inside the canteen that sells Army bags and accessories. I buy warm looking huge Army socks for 100 Rupees.
The lights of Tawang greet us as we roll into town at around 1630. Days end early in the North-east and this being the last week of October, the sunsets happen even earlier. As we enter the freezing hotel room, I wonder if Bumla was colder! Perhaps its the concrete construction of the hotel, or maybe the fact that the entire building never seems to receive sunlight.
Whatever it is; I can’t take my mind off the signboard that mentioned Zemithang!
Details for Travel between Tawang and Bumla
Distance between Tawang and Bumla is 37 Kms. The road is paved and metalled till Y Junction which is at a 22 km distance from Tawang. After Y Junction, the condition of the road is horrible and the drive can be said to be a real adventure! The distance from Y Junction to Bumla is 15 Kilometres and the road is open for only around 6 months in a year.
The altitude ranges from 4000m to 4600m from Y Junction to Bumla and there is snowfall usually from November to March. There is a permit required for travelling beyond Y Junction and onward to Bumla and it is advisable to only travel in SUV’s to Bumla because of the bad condition of the road.
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