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When the places you go
become part of you

An extraordinary journey is about venturing to destinations that hurt to leave behind.

Gorgeous postcard places you depart from with a heavy heart.

Tawang. Dirang. Sangti Valley. Jaswantgarh. Arunachal Pradesh.

The pain of parting with them was terrible, says Rajesh Karkera on the third leg of his 1,800 km, 10-day Mahindra Adventure-organised road/offroad journey across Assam, Arunachal and Meghalaya.

When the places you go
become part of you
Photograph: Milind Kale/Mahindra Adventure

When night fell, the Buddha loomed brilliantly above us. He beamed calmly down at his Tawang.

We didn't want the last night in Tawang to end. A beautiful town of warm souls where you wanted to stay on.

Its mesmerising magical blue skies were hard to leave behind. It was with heavy hearts we contemplated leaving the next morning.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

It was an AMAZING feeling to be driving downhill, with your car bonnet slightly tilted downwards the next morning.

All you could see up ahead, beyond the people and the road, was the tops of mountains and bunches of clouds.

Tawang was about a vehicle swap too. From there on we would be travelling in a Scorpio S10 4x4. What a difference it was!

The Scorpio, with its sturdier ladder frame chassis, took all the bad roads as if nothing mattered to it. The steering was a bit heavier, but that works to the driver's advantage.

It provided better road feedback and hence you got to know the roads much better.

The Scorpio's engine had a fairly good amount of torque delivered at even low RPMs, so it felt like a quick sprinter when you started off!

What one did miss though, especially on the flat highways was the 6th gear of the XUV500!

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

The pretty houses of Tawang we rode past as we departed reminded us of the simple, happy folks of these parts.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

Bye-bye Beautiful People of Tawang...

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

It was Monday morning, so we passed, for the first hour or so, hordes of little children, with ear to ear smiles, going to school, as we winded our way down.

Clearly, we were not the only ones happy with our impressive convoy :)

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

Our drive ahead took us on the same route to Dirang. However a slight detour was planned 25 km from Tawang to visit the Jaswantgarh War Memorial.

Set in scenic terrain, just below the Sela Pass, this cenotaph honours Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat who laid down his life on November 17, 1962 defending his post against the Chinese army.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

This unique war memorial consisted of a room where all the hero's personal belongings existed as if he still lived among the soldiers stationed there today.

Till nine years ago the Garhwal Rifles deployed at least half a dozen personnel there to take care of Singh almost like he were alive. He was served tea in bed at 4.30 am, breakfast at 9 am and dinner at 7 pm.

His bed was made every day. Even his shoes were polished. And his family received his salary and he was promoted.

This stopped nine years ago, when he retired from the Indian Army.

The room was still maintained. It is cleaned once a week. "Every Tuesday," says Hawaldar Sanjay Kumar, whose posting had begun just 10 days earlier.

Jaswant Singh Rawat, Havaldar Sanjay Kumar told us, held back the Chinese troops for 72 hours, running from one bunker to the other, without being seen and fooled the invaders into believing that that there were many more Indian soldiers at the post.

Single-handedly, he killed more than 300 Chinese soldiers, who are buried there.

It was only when his ammunition ran out that the Chinese army were able to kill him, said Havaldar Kumar, who hails from faraway Haryana.

His head was taken away by the Chinese. Later, China informed India about his incredible valour and returned his head.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

As the story goes, two local Monpa girls, Sela and Nura, who lived around there, helped Rifleman Rawat carry the ammunition from one bunker to the next.

The nearby pass is named after Sela. Nuranang river and its falls are named after Nura.

Both girls were killed while on the run. Sela fell at the place named after her. Nura died nearby.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

The cold weather at the spot made all of us look forward to getting back into the warmth of the car.

From there we were moving ahead to the familiar Norphel Retreat, Dirang, our destination for the day.

Photograph: Milind Kale/Mahindra Adventure

As we drove towards Sela Pass we realised the entire landscape had changed!

We were pleasantly startled to see snow all around. The Sela Pass, which was bright and sunny, had been covered the previous day with fresh, fluffy snow.

Photograph: Siddharth M

We had to make an unscheduled stop there! This was a wonderful surprise Mother Nature showered on us.

A chance to see a place looking entirely different, the second time around, in one trip!

Getting the convoy back on the road after all this excitement was difficult, but Vikram with his stern voice saw to it that we were rolling in 10 minutes, roll call ensured no had been missed (!) maybe someone still playing with snowballs!

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

Thence on a tedious return drive felt like a new adventure.

Fresh snow on the road put our vehicles into 4x4 modes to avoid skidding.

Slowly and reluctantly we left this heavenly pass.

Sela. Or was it Zela? The signboard at Sela Pass says Zela. Everywhere else it's Sela.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

The twisting roads ahead looked so different.

We couldn't believe this was the same road we climbed up on just a day earlier!

Sadly in a matter of 45 minutes, through this fairy tale, snow-covered landscape, we were back on the dusty stretch which had no tarmac.

It was close to 1 pm. We were getting close to Dirang.

Far below we could even see the Norphel Retreat growing larger as we approached...

Our team leader suddenly announced the details of the surprise he had alluded to after morning prayers, before we departed Tawang: A camping lunch by the river in Sangti Valley. Super!

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

The convoy snaked past dreamy single-storied village homes, wreathed in corn cobs that were hanging to dry.

We suddenly emerged into a valley of sorts, carpeted with grass, bordering a river.

Photograph: Milind Kale/Mahindra Adventure

We were instructed to enter the grassland and drive in any direction. Wow! Anywhere we wanted?!

This was Mahindra Adventure photographer Milind Kale's idea. He is a down-to-earth, fun-loving, guy, always willing to give tips and tricks to get a good picture.

VIDEO: : The amazing Sangti Valley and Sela Pass after a snowfall

Cars scattered off into multiple directions, with Milind, standing like a music conductor right in the centre of the grassy Sangti Valley, shooting videos of all of us.

Brilliant footage, probably, of a splendid, unforgettable day.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

It was 1.50 pm by the time we the reached Sangti Valley.

Eating out in the midst of a vast flat open land, with green velvet mountains about us and a mountain river gushing close by, was such a wonderful idea.

Kya setting! Except as we unwound after our ride, lunch was the last thing on our minds.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

A makeshift washroom had been put up with the army's help. Hats off to the Mahindra Adventure team for the arrangements!

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

The more adventurous folks decided to cross the icy-cold river. The water was actually sub-zero temperatures.

Photograph: Milind Kale/Mahindra Adventure

Lunch had been organised by the locals. Sumptuous. It included locally made rice beer and local arak (aniseed/saunf-based drink) which tasted a bit like vodka.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

This was how a stray dog looks around here! Yup it's a stray Lhasa Apso.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

The fantastic lunch was followed by music by a bonfire. Could you ask for more?

Bhuvan, who hails from Dirang, played the guitar and sang songs. No network. What a blessing.

Everyone enjoyed every moment of this peaceful get together.

Did we really need to leave this place? Again the same thought traveled through my head.

A memorable journey is about places you never want to leave. Sadly, we were told to roll at nightfall and head for the Norphel Retreat.

Leg 4: The rhinos of Kaziranga

 Third Leg: Route map

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