Have you been to Tinsukia? Sorry, have you heard of Tinsukia?, Let me try again, have you been to the North East of India? There is a high chance that you answered No to all of the above! North East is a region which seems to have been ignored by most of India at least as far as travelling and holidaying is concerned. When you can go to Singapore and Bangkok for the same amount of money, why visit Assam or Arunachal Pradesh? That seems to have been the reasoning amongst most Indians (including me) so far.
I visited Assam 22 years back but those memories faded away long long back. Now, I once again got a chance to see a region which in one word I can simply describe as ‘Virgin’. This truly is one of the few remaining parts of India which is still unexplored and offers that calmness, peace and quiet for which we travel 1000s of miles away from home. If you are looking to dream away in the lap of nature; if you want ‘organic’ food, air and water; if you want to feel that nature belongs to you and only you; if you want to travel for hours and hours without being honked at your backside, then you need a dose of the North East of India!
I decided to take out a few days and visit Assam. I landed in Tinsukia – a small ‘Tea town’ in the north east of the north east! It is tucked away between Arunachal, Nagaland and Myanmar. It takes 1 hour to drive to the Arunachal Pradesh border, 2 hours to enter Nagaland and only 3 hours to reach the India-Myanmar border. In Tinsukia, I stayed in an area called Padumani Tea Estate. It is owned by Mr Raj Kumar Modi and his son Vivek who also own a resort called ‘Padmini Resort’ located right in the middle of their estate. I got a chance to speak to Vivek to find out how life is in this part of my country.
‘It is slow-paced, calm, and safe’, he said. As most people, I am under the impression that North East is anything but safe. So I ask the question, ‘But is it not true that North East is under a lot of terrorist attacks and kidnapping?’
‘If you asked me this question 10 years back, then my answer would be Yes. But today, North East is as safe as Delhi or Mumbai. Yes, parts of North-East are still not safe after dark, but overall it is safe for holiday makers unless you are very unlucky’, he said.
Well, I was already in North-East and his sincere answer was encouraging. He invited me to visit his Tea Estate and I was eager. I had never seen a Tea garden before and to get a personal tour with the owner was not something I was going to miss! As we sat in his Jeep and entered the tea garden, I was greeted by the fresh smell of tea leaves and warm smiles of the tea workers. The local ‘tea ladies’ were plucking the leaves and stuffing them in their shoulder bags with clockwork precision. I spoke to some of them and they all seemed happy with the work and content with their lives. We drove around 300 acres of the estate and saw hundreds of workers plucking away the leaves while drinking black tea with rock salt. ‘It’s a local drink that keeps them energised and refreshed throughout the day’, Vivek told me
After a couple of hours, I thanked Vivek and went to my room in Padmini resort. The sound of wildlife around me put me to sleep in no time.
Next day, I decided to drive to the India-Myanmar border via Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. ‘It is only 3 hours away’, I was told by a local in Tinsukia. ‘Have you been there’, ‘No’, came the quick reply. I went to a few tourist offices and asked a few people about India-Myanmar border, but surprisingly no one could give me any concrete information. They just pointed East and said it is somewhere in that direction. So I bought a couple of road maps of the North East and decided to explore.
Before I made my little trip, I went online and found some interesting bits of info about the area around India-Myanmar border. I saw a picture of a road called ‘Stilwell’ road which climbs up the mountain like a giant snake and looks absolutely unbelievable in the pictures. I made a mental note that I must enquire about this road and see it with my own eyes. I kept researching and came across an article talking about a lake near the border called the ‘Lake of No Return’. I was intrigued.
I read and read and read some more. This lake lies in the area of Pangsu Pass on the India-Myanmar border. The most common account of the origin of the lake’s name is due to the number of Allied aircraft which crashlanded in it during World War II. The Americans called it the Lake of No Return, on account of all the crashed planes concealed in its depths.
At least three more stories explain the name. The second has it that a group of Japanese soldiers returning from battle lost their way and ended up at the lake. There, they were stricken by malaria and died and hence it is called the Lake of No Return. According to a third story, US Army soldiers, working on the Ledo Road (Stilwell Road), were sent to examine the lake and got trapped by the undergrowth and perished trying to escape. A fourth story says this “is the ‘lake of no return’ [because] retreating British troops in 1942 got lost in quicksand. According to folklore, aircraft that fly over the lake never return. The lake’s reputation is advertised in hopes of making the area more attractive to tourists: “Who knows, the ‘Indian’ Bermuda Triangle might just turn out to be the next tourist-puller of the region.”
All this was enough for me to turn off the computer and turn on the engine. I asked Vivek if he was free to go on this little adventure with me, and fortunately, he was. I was secretly feeling lucky to have a local accompany me to the Lake of No Return hoping really that at least we will be returning back in the evening!
We started driving out of Tinsukia and after about an hour were stopped by a barricade in the middle of the highway. A sign next to it read ‘Welcome to Arunachal Pradesh’. AP is a restricted area and even Indians need a permit called ‘Inner Line Permit’ to enter the region. Ours was an impromptu plan so we had no permits with us. Soliders of Assam rifles were guarding the post and we were intimidated. ‘Permit please’, one of them asked. We got out of the car and explained the situation. Surprisingly, the guard smiled when we told them that we were on a road trip and only want to drive around a bit in Arunachal. Having Vivek with me was a big bonus as he could speak the local language and it helped a lot in convincing the guard to let us through for just a couple of hours. ‘You can go about 20 kms inside but from there, you will not be allowed to go further’. ‘No problem, sir. Thank you’, we said and moved ahead. We drove about 5 kms and were stopped again at what seemed like a bigger check post. Here, the guards wouldn’t let us through and ordered us to turn back. Persistence pays. In the end, the guard told us that they could have issued the permits but it being a Sunday, we will have to go to the DC’s (District Commissioner?) bungalow which was only a few minutes away and request him to write a permit for us. We quickly went to the DC bunglow and knocked at the door fully prepared to be kicked out and shown the door. But, we couldn’t be more wrong. The DC welcomed us and seeing our smiling faces and eagerness to see Arunachal, he sat and wrote the permit to let us through! We thanked him and left the bungalow feeling very proud. We were finally in Arunachal Pradesh. A region that always brings to mind mountains, lakes and a cool breeze. As we crossed the border, I felt like we are in a different country. People looked different and wore traditional serongs which I couldn’t relate to at all. We passed tiny huts and beautiful monasteries while waving at ladies carrying babies strapped on their backs.
We kept driving for about an hour before we were stopped at another check post which read ‘Pangsu Pass’. A guard approached and asked for our permit. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked. ‘We want to go to Myanmar’, I replied. ‘That’s not possible today. India Day is on 10th, 20th and 30th of every month but today is the 11th’ he replied. ‘India day? Whats’ that?’ I asked. ‘On India day, the India-Myanmar border is opened for locals and a market is setup on the Myanmar side. Anyone from India can visit the market. If you came yesterday, you could have gone to Myanmar but now you will have to come on the 20th’, he explained. We were disappointed but at least we learned something. ‘Do you know anything about the Lake of No Return?’ we asked. ‘Yes, it is on the other side of the border and you can see it on India day’ We wanted to only catch a glimpse of the lake and asked if it is possible to see it today but the guard said that we need to be very close to the border to be able to see the lake but today not being the India day, we will not be able to go too close. We kept insisting and the guard decided to make us meet his senior officer. The officer told us that we can go near the border and even arranged for 2 guards to accompany us…just in case.
We crossed the check post and started climbing a hill. Suddenly, the area looked
abandoned and the road turned into gravel. There were trees, rocks and sand all around. No sight of any cars or people. The guard told us that we were actually driving on the Stilwell Road. I had seen the ‘snakish’ aerial view of the road and now I found myself actually driving on it. I was excited. We were on the Stilwell road; we had Assam Rifles soldiers escorting us and we were driving towards Burma! About half an hour later, the soldiers asked us to stop the car and walk. We were close to the border and the guards didn’t want to surprise the Burmese guards as they wouldn’t be expecting anyone from India today. We walked for a few minutes and saw a board which pointed to India in our direction and to Myanmar ahead of us. We realized that Myanmar lay a few metres ahead of us. The border post was still a few kms away but we crossed the sign and stepped on Myanmar soil!
The guards asked us to stay there while they went further to survey the area. We spent
our time clicking pictures of the sign feeling very excited to stand on Burmese soil. The guards returned after a few minutes and looked a bit concerned. They had received a wireless message to not go further and we were told sternly that this is farthest we could travel to today and that now we should head back. We insisted that we want to just catch a glimpse of the Lake of No Return, but it’s not easy to melt the heart of a soldier guard the International Boundary of India.
We respected their decision and started driving back towards Tinsukia loaded with the knowledge that we could always come back on the India day to see the market on the Myanmar side and to look at the Lake of No Return.
It was a fantastic day. I only saw the tip of this North-Eastern iceberg and needless to say, I will be returning again. We were lucky today to have been able to drive so far in the east towards the India-Myanmar border. We didn’t see the lake and we returned home safely. But will we be lucky enough to return when we finally get a chance to visit the Lake of No Return?