“Do you want some tea?” My dad asks. We are sitting in the large kitchen of one of the nunneries, the young novice looking with controlled curiosity at her unlikely guests. My dad is giving me that slight michevious there-is-something-more-to-this-question look and at my prodding mentions, “it’s Tibetan tea”. I still don’t actually know what it means but never one to pass up trying something new I accept. A while later she brings us over three steaming cups of what looks like sweet milky chai. I bring it close to my face, glad for the small amount of warmth in this otherwise bitterly cold place and gag just a little. The tea smells like wet yak hair and curd. It tastes the same.Tibetan salty tea ,as it is sometimes called, is made from fermented yaks milk and tea leaves and it tastes like…well…gewoehnungbeduerftig as the Germans would say. I gulp down my tea in one go only to have the novice come over and fill it again to the brim. She refills my fathers cup and he looks over and in a low voice adds, “you have to accept three times at least”. Oh boy.
The landscape as we enter Tawang is absolutely breath-taking. We have just climbed one of the highest paved passes in India, Se-La at 4136 meters. At the very very top there is a Tibetan gate structure with “Welcome to Tawang” written on it, apart from that nothing else but snow and ice. My body is going haywire as I pant in the thin mountain air, layered in just about every possible item of clothing I own. I can hardly believe that 10 days ago I was drenched in sweat and too hot to even move in Chennai. That place seems already like it belonged to a different world.
As we make our way down the other side of the mountain I am awed by the tragic beauty of the scenery. Isolated, desolate valleys unfold from both sides and meet at the basin of a river that winds its way towards Bhutan. Perched on unimaginably steep cliffs are these tiny villages with tiny fields of barley and millet and rice making a patchwork out of the clearings. Rhododendron forests bloom bright red on vast unihabited land and behind all of this green magical landscape peak the snow-capped tips of the greater himalayas, shroud in clouds and snow. It really is quite spectacular to behold made even more awe inspiring by the constant awareness of my own mortality as our jeep bumps and thumps over recent landslides and boulders, hugging onto the corners of the road that is somehow carved into the mountain offering spectacular views below of the seemingly endless drop into the canyon. It takes two full days driving to reach Tawang which holds the second largest Budhhist monastery as well as several smaller Gompas that dot the hills surrounding it.
The next three days are spent scrambling over rocks and ditches, by foot or car, exploring the landscape. We take a trip as far north as we can get to the official unofficial Tibetan border passing heavy militarized Indian Army outposts. All the while the Border Roads Organization(BRO for short) has us in stitches with their signs that I swear are mainly for the amusement of the handful of tourists that make it up here. They range from the cute (“Peep pee, don’t sleep” ) to the obscure (“If you are married to speed, divorce her”, “Better Mr. late than late Mr.”) to the frighting (“Speed is a knife that cuts through life”) to the outright funny (“Love thy neighbor, just not in the car”). Our personal favorite by far is: “Speed is a five letter word, so is “Deth”.
The region is historically and culturally fascinating. Essentially the people are Tibetan of sorts, they eat Momos and prefer salty tea and stuff like dried fermented yaks cheese which I was also forced to eat and tasted like the tea, except dried and more fermented. What I perhaps found the most amazing was on our trip to the Tibetan border. We drive through this otherwise unihabited valley, with sporadic clusters of houses making a village of some sort every hour or so. The rugged river with perfect white water and small falls alongside the virgin craggy cliffs make this a perfect place for extreme sport. In fact as we drive by the beautiful women and fields of cannabis I am tempted to send a picture of two close peaks over a roaring waterfall to my old roommate: heaven found.
As we round one of the corners there suddenly springs out at us this giant Stupa from the middle of nowhere. Supposedly Stupas have part of the remains of Buddha and they are not a temple, in fact they are often filled in, and your walk around the outside spinning the prayer wheels and leave offerings. Thousands of prayer flags are hung from the building, giving it this mystical and very human feel. Such dedication and perseverance must have been needed to bring the stones here and build this structure and although I agree that nature in itself is beautiful, there is a certain beauty to this white-washed man-made structure, the four sets of eyes on the top looking in all directions, the colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind a midst a backdrop of green and the whole structure surrounded by bronze cast prayer wheels. It transmits a certain tranquility that reminds me of the kind of people we have met here along our way. Quiet, strong, good-natured and forever grateful. I suppose living here, on the cusp of civilization, constantly reminded of your insignificance and at mercy to natures moods one learns to treasure even more the small pleasures that life throws at us.