Arunachal's Thunder Road
National Geographic Traveller India|September - October 2021
A 10-day journey along the Trans-Arunachal Highway puts a writer’s driving to the test, revealing one surprising twist after another
TANAY GOKHALE

For an enthusiastic driver, I haven’t undertaken many road trips, unless you count my silly daydreams of jettisoning my life to be a solitary, sleep-deprived trucker, roving along India’s twisting highways. So when a 10-day drive across Arunachal Pradesh presents itself, a glimmer of that fantasy seems to be within reach at last.

Large swathes of Arunachal Pradesh, despite its growing profile, are tourist-free. In the west, destinations such as Tawang, Dirang and Ziro now receive an annual trickle of backpackers, adventurers and music festival attendees, but the state’s eastern and central regions have been mostly inaccessible. All that is about to change with the Trans-Arunachal Highway, a project that has been carved through dense forests and steep mountain slopes, now nearing completion. And this drive, hosted by the state’s tourism board, is likely to be an arduous test of that epic 2,300-kilometre stretch.

While the journey is a pan-Arunachal one, photographer Mayank—my companion for 10 days—and I are only joining the convoy of travel writers and auto specialists for its central and eastern leg. We start from Namsai in the east, a pleasant three-hour trip from Dibrugarh in Assam. At night we stay at the family-run Hotel Arun Jivitta, opposite an almost Dickensian, solitary tea factory with a sheet metal roof, out of whose chimney billows black smoke behind an eerie compound wall.

BAPTISM BY FIRE

Early next morning, our convoy of over 30 Mahindra Thars and Scorpios is flagged off from Namsai’s Golden Pagoda. While our final destination— Hayuliang—lies towards the west, we start off eastward towards Nampong, the last Indian village before the Indo-Myanmar border, at Pangsau Pass. During the Second World War, Pangsau was called “Hell’s Gate” on account of just how dangerous it was for wayfarers. Today’s road is a world apart, seamlessly taking the vehicles higher and higher with each consecutive hairpin bend, like ants going up the grooves of a corkscrew.

A metal wire fence, at an elevation of 3,727 feet, is the only tangible marker of the Indo-Myanmar border. A section of the fence is opened up for us to cross over a few metres into Myanmar and inspect a few rows of empty wooden shacks, where a cross-border market used to thrive in the pre-pandemic days.

Later for lunch, we stray off the highway and barrel our way down to the pebbled shore of the river Lohit near the village of Samdul. Lohit has been by our side throughout the drive, but is always separated by a steep valley through which the flowing water reverberates in an ominous rumble. As I stand atop a smooth boulder on its bank though, the river seems more welcoming. In the distance, coniferous forests crowd the mountains on either side of the riverbank, masked by a thin veil of fog. In daylight, it’s a perfect muse for an artist’s easel.

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