Winter temperatures plummet to sub-zero in Tawang. It starts snowing as early as October. On several days in winter, Se La, the mountain pass which is the only gateway to Tawang, is covered in snow.
Yet, we will recommend Tawang as a top destination for a winter holiday in India. Now before you roll your eyes and think, “Sandeepa and Chetan have lost their minds”, we want you to picture this.
You are covered from head to toe in a cosy bear hugging winter wear, only the slits of your eyes and the red nose visible as your rugged vehicle make its way up the snow. You can smell the deodar scented fresh cold air as you enter Tawang. You pull your jacket even higher, as the jeeps come to a halt and you see smiling faces waving at you. That’s the family you are going to be staying with, in Tawang. You try to return the smiles, but all you are thinking of is being somewhere warm. They are well aware of this. What’s a regular winter for them is an extraordinary experience for anyone else. They help you rush indoors. You instantly get a woody cheesy kind of smell. The lit fire is the first thing that catches your eye. The family welcomes you to take the seat closest to it. They soon start passing glasses of “lalsa” ( red tea) or Ara, the choice is yours. Slowly but surely, you feel the blood flowing through your limbs again. The layers start coming off. And in no time, you are recalling every detail of every turn of the fairyland that you have just driven through.
Yes, that’s how your winter holiday to Tawang would begin. We assure you that.
Allow us to make a case for taking your next winter holiday to Tawang.
Reasons why you should make Tawang your next winter holiday destination
- Experience the winter wonderland on Se La or Sela pass
Se La is the gateway to Tawang. It’s a mountain pass that connects Tawang to the rest of the country. This makes Se La the key connector to reach Tawang. Like all mountain passes that are close to the international border in India, Tawang is also maintained by the BRO (Border Roads Organisation), a wing of the Indian Army.
Se La Pass is officially open throughout the year and the BRO does its best to keep it that way.
Each turn on the Se La Pass presents a landscape so stunning, you will find it difficult to believe it’s all really happening. One minute you’ll see the entire pass with all its bends and curves laid out before you. The next you will be driving through a whitewash of nothingness, wondering if your driver has some magical powers that lets him see the way. And just as suddenly as it had all disappeared, it’ll reappear to stun you again with its beauty.
Make sure you halt at the top of the Sela Pass and take a walk around the Sela lake. Se La is a high altitude pass with the top at over 4000 meters.
Some points to keep in mind when travelling at these high altitudes:
- Walk around slowly
- Avoid jumping and running to prevent altitude sickness.
- If you feel any discomfort then try to reach a lower altitude as soon as you can.
- Stay hydrated at all times.
It gets extremely windy at the top, so make sure you have an effective windcheater. It’s to the key letting you enjoy the magnificence all around.
There are a couple of dhabas at the top as well. So you can plan the journey such that you reach the top by lunchtime.
Also, it’s important to start your journey early in the mornings. The mountain weather starts to get rougher as the sun starts going down. You should aim to be in Tawang before the weather starts deteriorating.
Also, important to remember is that this is Northeast India. It starts to get dark much earlier than in the rest of India.
- Visit the frozen lake, see frozen waterfalls, maybe even make a snowman
The Sela lake starts to freeze as winter approaches. The entire lake becomes one big mass of ice surrounded by slow clad mountains. If the pass has had some fresh snowfall, you could think of the lake as one big scoop of an ice lolly!
Such low temperatures mean water freezes quickly leaving a trail of frozen droplets, dewdrops and waterfalls to mesmerise you.
And if it snows while you are on the Sela Pass, grab this opportunity to turn into a child! Park your jeep, get out in the snow, play with it, make a snowman.
Just make sure your driver has experience driving over the snow before you embark on this journey. This is why we say that local intelligence is priceless when venturing out to destinations like Tawang in winter. For Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh or for the whole of Northeast India, we highly recommend the responsible travel company Holiday Scout.
- Attend the Torgiya festival
Torgiya is the annual festival of the Tawang monastery. Monks from the monastery dress in elaborate costumes and perform various dances. The most attractive parts of the costumes are the masks worn by the monks. The festival and the dances all celebrate the victory of good over evil.
The Torgiya is also a major event in the social calendar of the people of Tawang. Unfazed by the freezing temperatures, they are all dressed in their festive best. From early in the morning, they congregate in the open courtyard outside the Tawang monastery. Stalls selling everything from the pure wool “witch hats” to woollen wear, traditional Monpa beaded jewellery, toys, and quick snacks are set up all along the way to the monastery.
Attending the Torgiya festival is a great chance to mingle with the local people of Tawang. It lets the tourists soak in the culture, and experience it first hand.
- Visit the fast disappearing Brokpa tribe
The Brokpa tribe are yak herders of Tawang and the surrounding districts. Traditionally they have owned herds of yaks. In the summer months, they go even higher up to the meadows for the yaks to graze.
In the winter, they come to lower heights with access to the local markets. They still live a little away from the town of Tawang, where their yaks can be left in the open.
Since the land is all covered in snow, they have to arrange for the yaks’ food themselves. The settlement that we visited was set up close to the ITBP centre. These people have formed a mutually beneficial arrangement with the ITBP centre. They collect all the leftover food from the centre, along with some fresh fruits and vegetables and feed the yaks. In exchange, the people at ITBP get fresh milk.
When we heard of all of this, it sounded exotic and exciting. I couldn’t wait to go visit the Bropka settlement. The first challenge that hit me was the cold. Stepping out of the car pre-dawn was a nightmare. Because these Bropkas live here for only a few months, their houses are temporary shelters. Obviously without any heaters or insulation. They face the elements as they are, out in the open.
While we huddled around the fire, looking at the yaks do their thing, the day had already begun in full flow for the couple we visited. The man was busy milking and feeding the yaks simultaneously. He had a tiny stool tied around his waist. For every yak, he would fill a tub with the feed, a yak would come forward and start eating, while he milked that yak. Once a sufficient amount was collected, his wife got to the task of churning the milk in the big churners that are a common feature of all Monpa households.
As soon as we had stepped out of the cars, soulful chants had impregnated the otherwise heavy quiet. Seeing the Brokpa couple go about their morning routine with pinpoint precision, one thing dawned on me. This – this seemingly absurdly difficult life, was in fact nothing short of meditation for the Brokpas. This was the life that they knew, and the life that they were giving it all.
There aren’t too many Brokpas left. The younger generation isn’t taking up this lifestyle anymore. They prefer to live away from their families, in the town of Tawang or even further away, take up jobs, live a “normal” life. Their parents, like this couple, don’t mind it either. And credit to them, that they aren’t imposing their choice on the younger generations.
Purebred yaks are also diminishing in numbers. Most yaks now are a hybrid of yaks and the Himalayan cows.
I had been excited about meeting the Brokpas ever since I was told we would be visiting them. But the significance of it all hit me, only when I stood outside their home, with snow all around me, looking at the yaks, listening to the chants and the sounds of the churning milk.
What’s a bit of cold endured to the richness of what I had experienced that morning? Exclusively made possible by Holiday Scout.
- Feel what a day break from a monastery feels like
“Do you want to attend the morning prayers”? Being a curious traveller means saying yes to everything, and cursing yourself as you wear layer over layer, in the dark and step away from the cosy confines of the heated room in the chilly wet morning.
But by now we know that this is short-lived. In no time, the discomfort of that moment will be forgotten. And it surely was. By a maroon sea of robes, the sounding on the gong and the reverberating mantras. It was still dark, over the town of Tawang, as well as inside the Tawang monastery. Monks, young and old were fast filling the rows of the monastery. The air was filled with the smell of butter lamps. The chants were becoming louder by the minute. There was calm, captivating energy all around. I stood there, mesmerised. Was it by the intricate tangkas everywhere on the walls? On the tall statues? Or the rhythmic chants? I am not sure. But there was something about that moment, that made the emotions swell, and settle, all at once. A moment that draws you in. A moment in which you are completely present, feel completely alive.
Slowly, a ray glimmered into the prayer hall, lighting up a few faces. Soon, the light started entering through the windows, but the calmness stayed constant.
A long while after the prayers ended and the monks left for their chores, did we leave the prayer hall. The clouds were just lifting over the town of Tawang. From high up there, I saw the town on Tawang being woken up by the sun.
At that moment, it felt like the monks had already created a blanket of protection over it.
These were just some highlights of my winter “expedition” to the Northeast with Holiday Scout. I wouldn’t trust anyone else to take us to these remote locations at the peak of winter. Did they make it a piece of cake? Certainly not! But they did make it the most memorable one.