If you are fed up of the Guwahati-Tawang-Kaziranga-Shillong circuit through the dusty and crowded roads and snarling traffic, then allow me to suggest something new.
Come over to eastern Arunachal Pradesh and start a circuitous tour via north bank or south bank from Dibrugarh to Tezu, Roing and Pasighat.
You will be taken to paradise.
If you love driving through mountainous and meandering roads, crossing wild rivers with very few vehicles coming from the opposite direction through some of the most beautiful landscapes of the country, then you must be travelling on the Trans Arunachal Highway.
This is a dream highway of nearly 1,600 km still untouched by the vagaries of modernity. The road condition is so good at the moment that many suspect it as a long runway to be used by the Indian Air Force in case of any emergency with China.
There is no other road in the entire country which can match the beauty, landscape, road condition and wilderness of the Trans-Arunachal Highway, a majority of which is now open for traffic.
With the two mighty bridges of Dhola-Sadiya and Bogibeel over river Lohit and river Brahmaputra respectively, the entire landscape of eastern Assam and eastern Arunachal Pradesh have dramatically changed not only making it easier for the people living in Dhemaji, Lower Dibang, Lohit and East Siang districts but also opening a completely new circuit for tourism.
But the heart of everything is the Trans-Arunachal Highway, an audacious road from Tawang to Khonsa, encircling the whole of Assam, running parallel to the strategic international border.
If you try to compare this road with some of the most picturesque roads of the country, such as the Chennai-Pondicherry road or Leh-Manali road, the Trans-Arunachal Highway will win it hands-down.
First of all, it runs through the wilderness of Arunachal Pradesh, and is a virgin territory. The landscape is not so mountainous and mostly foothills and wildly beautiful with almost zero traffic. There is a freshness in the air, and you will be forced to open the window so that the breeze from the eastern Himalayas take over the music system of your car.
For rallyists, this is a dream road, and already things are moving in that direction as the Ziro Music Festival is pulling crowds from all over the country.
The highway has connected 12 of the existing 16 district headquarters while the remaining four districts and the state capital are being connected through a link road of 848 km.
Started in 2008, the actual work progressed from the end of 2013, and now it is almost complete, except for a few patches from Seppa to Yazali.
The idea is to connect all the districts of Arunachal Pradesh without touching Assam. Moreover, for defence also, there has to be a road as we did not have a proper road that runs parallel to the Indo-China border, said Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu, who himself drove a motorcycle for 175 km in one of those link roads from Yinkiong to Pasighat.
Within Arunachal Pradesh, the highway will connect the district headquarters and other important places such as Tawang, Bomdila , Nechipu, Seppa, Sagalee, Yupia, Yazali, Ziro, Daporijo, Along, Pasighat, Roing, Tezu, Mahadevpur, Bordumsa, Namchik, Changlang, Khonsa, Longding, Kanubari near Nagaland and help greatly in reducing isolation of the people of the state.
The construction of the Trans-Arunachal Highway began in 2008. However, progress till 2013 was slow, with only 100 of the proposed 2,400 km being constructed. The slow pace of progress has plagued almost all highway projects in the Northeast.
Keen to make up for lost time, the Congress government at the Centre announced a new scheme called the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme in Northeast in 2013. The Trans-Arunachal Highway was one of the flagship projects under the scheme.
The region is crisscrossed by an unruly network of angry rivers. The major rivers include the Siang, Dibang and Lohit, all tributaries of the Brahmaputra, but bigger and more furious than most large rivers in other parts of the country. All these have a bunch of smaller, but equally feverish, sub-tributaries. The region had few roads – and even fewer bridges – that were motorable throughout the year.
Dr K Mitapo is a popular general physician in Roing, a picturesque town in Lower Dibang district. Often, he has to travel to Pasighat, an old historic town that lies 90 km to the west. He also has to go to Tezu, another important strategic headquarters of Lohit district that lies just 60 km east of Roing.
Till the middle of 2017, it used to be almost half-a-day journey for him to reach both the destination. In bikes, it could be half a day but on a car, it would take even more time and a return journey on the same day would be simply out of question, something people in the rest of India would not believe.
If you look at the topography of the whole area on Google Maps, three large rivers –Siang, Lohit and Dibang — get out of the mountains and flow indiscriminately to become the mighty river, Brahmaputra. To see how vast the whole system is, one must visit the area because it is indescribable.
Earlier, if you start by 8 am, you may expect to reach by 2 pm as one used to cross at least five small and major rivers. It was not just the lack of bridges that made travel difficult but even the roads, leading up to the water bodies were little more than uneven dirt tracks.
“You have a river everywhere. You do not know which is the mainstream. It is almost impossible to take a car as it is quite dangerous to put them on the mechanised boat which also operates in crazy timings. It was just unimaginable how people used to travel from Roing to Pasighat, which is a historic town having a full-fledged medical facility and even an All India Radio Station since the 1960s,” said Bhisen Mello, a local resident.
It took over three hours to cross river Lohit to this writer in the 1990s. When his team started crossing the river at Alubarui ghat it was 4 p.m and then in the complete darkness following small dirt track three times the river was crossed to reach other side and by the time it reached Tezu it was well past 7 p.m, a mere distance of 30 kilometres. Today it takes hardly 25 minutes.
The story is the same on Pasighat side. As the great river of Siang reaches plains of Brahamputra valley at Ranaghat just near Pasighat, the river just flows everywhere with numerous rivulets and streams making the crossing almost a 3-4 hour exercise for the bravest one, said Bhisen Mello, a local resident.
Now Roing-Pasighat is just 45 minutes away, and Roing-Tezu is a lazy 60-minute drive, and there is every likelihood that you will not meet more than a few dozen vehicles on the road.
This sudden spurt of brand new roads and bridges has suddenly made the whole of eastern Arunachal a new tourism circuit.
Circuit No 1: Tinsukia-Dibrugarh-Bogibeel-Pasighat-Roing-Chapakhowa-Sadiya
Circuit No 2: Tinsukia- Tinsukia-Dibrugarh-Bogibeel-Pasighat-Roing-Tezu-Namsai-Madevopur-Pengeri-Digboi-Duliajan-Dibrugarh
Circuit No 3: Dhemaji-Dibrugarh-Tinsukia-Sadiya-Roing-Pasighat-Dhemaji
But some people are not happy.
One of them is Gibi Pul, the owner of a lovely Mishmi hill camp right on the bank of the river Deopani. He thinks the beautiful roads have diminished the thrill of remoteness. “Now I am getting more tourists, but they are not hardcore nature lovers. They zip off from Tinsukia, not like those who used to come from Mumbai or Kolkata crossing all the difficulties to know the Mishmi hills,” said Pul.
Pul’s comment notwithstanding, the fact is that eastern Arunachal Pradesh has suddenly become the place to go to and it has completely changed the tourism map of the Northeast.
(The author is a senior journalist and writer. Views expressed are his own. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)