‘How much is the ticket to Sela Top?’ I ask at a counter in Dhirang. Sela Top is the highest point on the Bomdila-Tawang route. It stands nearly 4200 m. It is a cold place and supposedly surrounded by snow-clad mountains.
‘Three hundred and thirty,’ says the guy. ‘Come, come. Buy the ticket here. Leaving now.’ The last phrase in particular can mean anywhere between ten minutes to an hour.
‘Why so much? It’s not that far,’ I complain regarding the price.
‘You have to pay the full fare to Tawang.’
That’s not fair. I will not be taken for a ride. I hit the road to Sela on foot hoping to get a ride along the way. There is no way I can walk uphill for 60 kms. After a few minutes I hop on to a pickup but he will take me only as far as Rama Camp. I wait at Rama Camp for nearly an hour without luck. Not a single vehicle is going up towards Sela.
I continue on foot. I’m joined by two swamis from Andhra Pradesh. Each one carries a cloth satchel with a few essentials. Wornout sandals tell the tale of long distances walked. Their white dhotis are bordered brightly with zari work. Their foreheads are smeared with ash and vermilion. They walk in silence, broken only when I speak to them.
‘We have been here before. We are here to offer pujas at temples beyond Tawang,’ one swami explains to me in Hindi. Hindi is not a natural language to either of us but it is the only common one that we share.
‘Do you travel on foot?’ I ask.
‘Sometimes. We use any means of transport we can get.’
A local tribal worker stops them by the road. A short conversation ensues. The swamis collect money from her in return for prayers at the temples up north. Though Buddhism is common in these parts, so is Hinduism. In particular, Hindu tantric practice of worshipping Shiva and Shakti is prevalent in these regions. I leave the swamis at this point and soon reach Sapper.
Sapper is the last significant village before the road climbs steeply to Sela 51 kms away. A couple of trucks are parked at an army check post. I approach an army officer and request a ride in one of the army trucks.
‘Hop in. We’ll figure out something,’ says the officer, a stern-looking sardar with a pleasant personality. It is a short ride of few minutes before we reach Sapper Munch Point.
‘There is no convoy going to Sela today,’ explains the officer. I sit inside the truck along with three soldiers. One of them is a Punjabi listening to songs on his mobile. Another is from Uttar Pradesh while the third is from Bihar.
‘We are all from different places. Whole India is here,’ tells the soldier next to me.
Meanwhile the officer returns from the canteen with a plate of jelabis. I share this rare treat with the soldiers. Any other day I might got to Sela easily but today only luck will determine. I wait patiently for a ride. Trucks come and go. Sometimes nothing ever happens. At other times there is a flurry of activity – soldiers marching by, hopping off trucks, unloading goods or signing papers. Finally I am told there is a convoy of trucks going up. Most of them are carrying horses. One is transporting workers to a factory at Kirmusa.
I get into the back of this trunk. The men are playing cards. Some are in plain clothes, others in army uniform.
‘What do you do?’ I ask one of them.
‘We work in an ammunition factory. We destory old ammunication,’ he explains. It sounds more like a depot than a factory to me.
Before reaching Sela, other army settlements are passed. Sangrey comes first. Baisakhi is next. Soldiers hop in and hop off with their baggage and bedding. Letters bound in jute bags are despatched in the same trucks. Often soldiers, complete strangers to one another, recognize rank and a common purpose that binds them together. They launch into light talk as if they have known each other for ages.
As we climb for Sela, one side of the mountain is a wild spectable of dark gathering clouds. The other side reveals clear blue skies and thick green forests spread on these mountain slopes. These forests then give way to evergreen pines. When we break through the tree line, I know that Sela is not far now.
I thank the soldiers for the ride and get off by a still lake reflecting a ring of snowy peaks. There is next to nothing here except for one building managed by an unfriendly woman. Actually she is not as unfriendly as she appears. She is curt in her replies and business-like in all interactions. She never smiles. Her only advantage is the monopoly she possesses in this isolated location.
‘Do you have anything to eat?’ I ask.
‘Only Maggi,’ comes the reply rather sharply.
After finishing this nice bowl of noodles for Rs. 30, I pester her once more, ‘Do you have any room for tonight?’
‘No. All full.’
‘I just need a bed.’
‘No water here. No food too.’
‘That’s okay. I just need a place to sleep.’
‘Cannot trust outside people, you know,’ she complains again. I am not discouraged by her excuses. I’ll try my luck later in the evening. There is no way I am going to leave Sela so quickly. It’s a beautiful place and I’m going to spend more time here.
‘I’ll leave my backpack here. I’m going for a walk. I’ll pick it up later, say by six,’ I tell her. She reluctantly agrees. I buy a packet of Good Day biscuits for Rs. 30 though the marked price if only Rs. 20.
The road bifurcates at Sela Top. One heads down to the beautiful Sela Pass. The other skirts the slopes to the left and disappears into the mountains beyond. I quite like the idea of disappearing into the mountains. So I take the road going left. This is the road that leads to Bhutan.
For the next four hours I am among the mountains with no human in sight. The only human nearby is the sour-faced woman at Sela Top. Sela Lake is a placid piece of beauty. Yaks are grazing by the lake. Near my path are yellow rhododendrons in bloom. Where the slopes are in perpetual shadow, even at this season of summer, there is snow unthawed. Little streams are trickling down the slopes. Where the snow is melting, drops fall like an orchestrated symphony of seasonal change.
When the clouds disperse, the clear valleys reveal their beauty. The road through Sela Pass winds like a rattler under the shadow of the mountains. The pass narrows with distance and points to a range of peaks in communion with the clouds. When the clouds gather, transform into mist and fog, everything is clothed in secrecy. Ruins of stone buildings look ghostly. The call of a mountain bird sounds ominous. Mossy stones stand as great as the mountains and their rugged peaks.
Had I had with me an entire day, I would have walked much farther. I return to Sela Top and sit by the warm fire. There is an old man staying here tonight and he is the only one. The woman curtly quotes the price for letting me stay here – Rs. 400. It sounds like she is doing me a big favour. She reiterates there is no food or water. I don’t like the idea of being at her mercy. I pack up and leave.
It is half six and getting dark. It is already cold and there is every chance that it would be ten degrees colder through the night. Ever since I lost my sleeping bag at Bedsa Caves near Lonavla, I’ve never needed it as much as I do today. I have with me a few options.
I can spend the night at a building nearby that seems abandoned. I can walk through the night. Weather is brilliant tonight and there is no danger if I stick to the road. I can look for a place to rest at the next village. I’ve been told it’s about 4 kms from here. Lastly, I can request for a place in one of the army camps at Sela.
With torch in hand, I look up. The stars are out. The mountains seem to hundle for warmth. Their peaks are pointing to the stars as if to trace another night, another season and another cycle in the rhythms of the universe. I tighten my backpack and draw closer my woollen muffler. I hit the road towards Sela Pass. What happens next is quite another story.