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INDIA: Snowy peaks, lamas, tribals echo the old, vanished Tibet
AP[Tuesday, December 23, 2003 23:49]

TAWANG, India - If you are seeking the old, magical Tibet, now trampled by Chinese rule and depredations, venture to this pine-green, far-flung valley guarded by snowy Himalayan peaks and peopled by lamas and pious laity.

"Welcome to the Hidden Paradise," reads a road sign at its rim. Below, a landscape of epic grandeur is unveiled, resounding with the trumpet calls of Buddhist monks and the jangle of yak bells. And it's certainly hidden, tucked away in a corner of northeast India, protected by law from immigrants and mass tourists.

So don't expect easy access to this time capsule of a realm that is no more. But for the adventurously inclined, even the trip itself can prove a most memorable, and intense, experience.

"In India, everything is possible," an airline official assured us in Calcutta, the international gateway to Tawang. And he was right. At the start, everything that could possibly go wrong did, including a four-hour flight delay, an overturned truck blocking a rain-soaked road overnight, fully booked hotel rooms and warnings about highway robbers who had fleeced a string of travelers the previous night.

All frustrations evaporated as our party of six friends left the plains and tea plantations of Assam and wound northwards and skywards into Arunachal Pradesh. Virgin forests smothered hills undulating to the misty horizons. Waterfalls plunged into deep, cool ravines. Dressed in the traditional wear of some of Arunachal's 25 tribal groups, children and elders waved from the roadside.

One morning we stumbled out of our frosty tents, pitched in a schoolyard, and thought we had woken up in Shangri-La. Abreast high ridges, the dwellers of Namshu had built a cozy settlement of mellowed stone houses with roofs carpeted by blazing red chilies and corn drying in the sun.

Protecting Namshu, the villagers said, was Mahayana Buddhism's pantheon of deities, depicted in vividly colored murals at two gompas, or monasteries. A holy monk, who locals said had bested the Dalai Lama in philosophical debate, occupied a very humble room of one, spending months at a time in deep meditation. He died six years ago, but a local guide pointed to his shoes and walking stick, reverently placed where they lay in his lifetime.

Within Namshu's boundaries, our group trekked past fertile fields of rice, millet and soybean and trees laden with plums and pears. Hospitable, self-sufficient farmers along our path offered tea and a potent home-brew from rice. This we probably should have accepted given the knee-buckling descent at day's end from this wonderland to the road below.

Buddhist faith seemed to spring from the very soil as we continued the 224-mile trip from Tezpur in Assam to Tawang after several days of trekking. Gompas and chortens, small, bell-shaped shrines of stone, rose from almost every hilltop and thousands of flags sent their inscribed prayers fluttering to the winds.

The other presence was of a very different order. Military encampments abound, troops guard every pass and there's a parade of memorials to soldiers like rifleman Jaswant Singh, who died taking a machine gun nest in a battle that "exploded the myth of the invincible Chinese."

From these one wouldn't gather that the poorly equipped Indian army suffered great humiliation as China's forces rolled across the frontier in 1962 after a long-brewing territorial dispute. They overran Tawang and reached the approaches to Tezpur before declaring a unilateral cease-fire and pullout.

China still claims Arunachal as its own, and as a high-security zone the state was closed to foreign tourists until 1993. But shielding Arunachal and its tribal groups from unbridled development, including an onrush of tourists and settlers, has also been a farsighted central government policy dating back to the 1950s.

Indian citizens from other states and foreigners need special entry permits, and the latter must travel in small groups organized by licensed tour agencies for limited periods. Twice the size of Switzerland, with no airport or upscale facilities, the stunningly beautiful state receives less than 100 foreign tourists a year.

Struggling around relentless curves, our two jeeps negotiated the single lane, pitted road with its shoulders sometimes swept down the dizzying heights. Despite signs like "Divorce Speed" and "This is not a rally, enjoy the valley," a number of India's notorious truck drivers regularly take the plunge.

A collective sigh of relief marked our passage upward through the clouds and over Sela Pass, at 13,700 feet one of the world's highest motorable points. A few hours later, a rare rainbow, arching perpendicularly from sky to earth, welcomed us to Tawang Valley. Then, through a warm, mystic light of evening, we took in an unforgettable sight: shimmering on a distant spur rose Tibetan Buddhism's greatest monastery after the Potala in Lhasa.

By chance we arrived during a three-day festival, with religious and folk dances and a Tibetan rock band, decked out in traditional robes, whose opening number included a refrain -- "ice cream, chocolate, lollipops" -- in English.

The next morning, villagers and monks gathered at the monastery, lodged at some 10,000 feet, for a procession down the winding path toward Tawang town. Lay people carried holy scriptures as monks struck gongs and sounded their long trumpets toward mountains sparkling with snow.

Nearby Tibet and its capital Lhasa -- 315 miles away, a road sign says -- held cultural and political sway over the region for centuries. Then the Chinese invaded and the current, 14th Dalai Lama fled his homeland in 1959, stopping at Tawang en route to exile. The intimate link between Arunachal and Tibet was severed.

But the gompa, known as the Tawang Ganzen Namgyet Lhacheh, and the region remain bastions of ways mostly expunged in Tibet. Every family must send a male -- the second son is the rule -- to the monkhood or pay a fine, and everyone contributes in cash or kind to support the monastery and other religious institutions.

In the gompa's expansive courtyard, hovering over a cliff, Tashi Chogyal tells us about the sprawling complex of 73 stone and wood residences for the 385 monks and a vast communal kitchen where 353 pounds of rice and copious amounts of vegetables are daily served up. There's a splendid library, a museum and a school for youngsters who may spend the rest of their lives within the monastery walls.

Our abbot, the monk says, was born in Tibet but most of the lamas are Monpas, one of several ethnic groups in Arunachal of Tibetan stock.

We enter the 400-year-old monastery's soaring chapel, its rich tapestries and paintings suffused by rays of a tender, mountain sunlight. An attendant suggests we light incense sticks and candles while silently asking for the fulfillment of a special wish. Other visitors prostrate themselves before the image of a seated, faintly smiling Lord Buddha, a portrait of the Dalai Lama placed beneath its three-story height.

"I believe in the words of the Dalai Lama that Tibet will become independent again," says Tashi Chogyal, a monk for the past 25 years. "I hope that in the future the border will reopen and we can come and go."

It may prove very difficult, but everything, he assured us, is possible.

If You Go...

GETTING THERE: Flights available from Calcutta to Tezpur, and from New Delhi to Guwahati. There are buses and taxis from Tezpur or Guwahati to Tawang.

ACCESS: Foreigners must obtain restricted area permits from the Indian government to visit Arunachal. For details, contact www.indiantravelportal.com/tawang or India's tourist office in New York, (212) 586-4901.

TOURS: Various companies arrange tours of the area, including Gurudongma Tours & Treks at www.gurudongma.com/arunachal and Razdan Holidays at www.razdanholidays.com.
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