Perhaps not surprisingly to those that know me, I found the military dimension to Arunachal Pradesh interesting. Tensions between India and China run high in this area… Currently, India administers all of Arunachal Pradesh. However, the Chinese lay claim to the majority of Arunachal Pradesh as they believe it to be an extension of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The dispute has left this part of Arunachal Pradesh heavily militarized. And in fact, in 1962, China and India actually went to war over this border conflict.
On the 20th of October in 1962, a well-armed and well-trained Chinese invasion force poured across the border and steamrolled through the poorly equipped and poorly trained Indian troops, soon making it almost all of the way to Tezpur, in the Indian state of Assam – hundreds of kilometers inside Indian territory. Although the Chinese eventually pulled back to the original (but disputed) border in 1963, they had made their point. And today, the Indian Army has a very heavy presence along the road leading to China (or leading from China depending on who is invading whom) to prevent a repeat of the humiliating 1962 invasion.
All non-residents wishing to enter Arunachal Pradesh require a permit to do so – even Indians. These permits are not easy to obtain. We obtained ours through James Willcox with Untamed Borders and I would strongly recommend James to anyone wishing to travel to this part of the world. He has great contacts in the area (including contacts that can get you a permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh) and a remarkable depth of knowledge.
There is only one very rough road in Arunachal Pradesh leading up to Tawang and the Chinese border. And that road passes through the border town of Bhalukpong where all traffic wishing to enter Arunachal Pradesh must transit through the border checkpoint pictured below:
Here a group of soldiers is monitoring traffic just over the border inside Arunachal Pradesh:
As mentioned in my introduction, the road leading to the Chinese border is heavily militarized. Military patrols and convoys streaming up and down the Himalayas form the majority of the traffic one encounters:
With the volume of military activity and the perceived threat from China, it is considered essential to keep the only road open at all times. As such, any obstructions are dealt with immediately by the Indian Army. In the scene below, the military truck has hooked a tire over the edge of a section of the road that collapsed, leaving the truck hanging over the edge of a cliff. The Indian Army stepped up immediately, summoning a large tow truck, and in short order the patrols and convoys were once again streaming up and down the Himalayas:
There is a good reason that there is only one road leading to Tawang and to the Chinese border. This is a rough environment with extreme geography and weather, leading to frequent flooding and landslides which make keeping the road open a full-time operation. Shortly before we headed up into the mountains, a military convoy had been struck by a landslide, sending several trucks over the cliffs into the abyss and causing a significant number of deaths. Such events are not an uncommon occurrence.
Responsibility for the work on this road officially lies with the Border Roads Organization (BRO). However, the Indian Army often steps in to assist with maintaining this strategically vital road in order to ensure that it remains open. That is what is happening here:
And here a BRO road crew is hard at work clearing away a recent landslide… The state of the road in this picture is a pretty fair representation of what the majority of the road is like:
Aside from the interesting military activity, the area is certainly beautiful in its own right:
As one makes their way farther up the road toward China, more and more military installations will be encountered, particularly in the Tenga Valley. These installations house regiments with great names, such as the Ball of Fire Rabbits, the Magnificent Seven, the Kargil Victors and the Sesame Street Warriors of the Northeast:
Outside one such outpost was a massive poster covered with pictures of rockets and artillery. At the top was the simple declaration: Firepower – The Final Argument.
Below is the beginning of one of the massive convoys (convoys that often originate in the military town of Tezpur) that are frequently encountered as they supply the far flung Indian Army bases and move troops around… The road isn’t wide enough for more than just the military vehicles and so, on such occasions, when one encounters these convoys, one just pulls over and waits. Sometimes it takes ten minutes or even more for the entire convoy to pass by:
An alpine military post just below the Se La Top:
A short distance below the 4176m pass of Se La is a war memorial dedicated to an Indian soldier that singlehandedly held up the advance of the Chinese military before eventually being overwhelmed by the vast numerical superiority of the Chinese Army:
The entrance to the war memorial:
The grounds of the memorial, housing a small museum:
These bunkers on the site were the scene of particularly intense and vicious fighting:
With both China and India aware of their growing power and eager to flex their muscles a bit in this new reality, this is an area that bears watching. These may not be the last war memorials that are constructed in Arunachal Pradesh.