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Pangsu Pass Winter Festival - 2013

May 14, 2013

"Coffers filled with golden coins 
A queen of a world without a mind 
Evil running rampant 
Dark smoke curls in a mystified youth
Wisps of a soul still remain
Her fingers locked in a defiant fist
While a rowboat dredges through the mist
On the lake of obscurity
A fairy queen dances
Summoning the spirits of those past
Closer and closer; the beat of the drum
Heart-pulse quickened, a muffled cry
A virgin heart thrust toward the sky
Snapped up by the mushroom cloud
Within a face beneath a shroud
Dripping fangs of crimson
One swift wind and all is vanished
And all that remains is the lake .....The lake- Cavie M. Willson


“Lake Of No Return” conjures up various notions in one’s mind. For me it was more of a romantic idea of just fading away into a world of no return. Having read so much about this beautiful lake and the legends associated with it, the sole purpose of mine travelling to be part of the Pangsu Pass Winter Festival tour was the chance of visiting this lake.

Pangsu Pass Winter Festival or PPWF happens every year from 20th to 22nd January .The festival is a cultural hot pot, showcasing the vivid diversity and ethnic heritage of the various tribes of the region. It provides a platform for tourists to experience a slice of the bygone times, by showcasing the colorful and lively tribes in all their traditional glory.

This January, I had the opportunity to visit the serene and historic village of Napong, which hosts the festival. Started in the year 2007 with the involvement of Tangsa,Khamti and Singpho communities, with Help Tourism being the facilitator in fostering the friendship between the neighboring tribes of Mynamar and the Arunachalis to help in spreading the message of peace with tourism as the binding form to preserve and nurture the Biodiversity Hotspot of the East Himalayas along the Indo-Myanmar region. This year they joined hands with the NGO Nature’s Beckon in organizing the bicycle rally named Burma Road Expedition, to spread the message of conservation.

Our small group of travellers met at Dibrugarh on 19th January 2013. All of us stayed at a no frills hotel “Monalisa”.We did a bit of shopping around the market area. And I had my usual fare of chats in the form of Aloo Tikki and Bhel Puri.

Next on 20th Jan 2013, Tipu , an always smiling driver picked us from the hotel,early in the morning in his SUV. As instructed by Shishir, a member of Help Tourism, we were to reach Lekhapani in time to witness the inauguration of the Bicycle expedition which was to start from the Assam Rifles ground. Twelve cyclists including two jawans were part of the team which was to pedal upto Pangsu Pass.

After the inaugural run, we drove towards Jairampur where our camping stay was set up for the next three nights. We reached the campsite to the very welcoming lunch fare prepared by Biblu, who can pamper your stomach day in and day out with awesome fare .Post lunch we visited the hanging bridge and the floating restaurant .The same night the first of the event of PPWF was to begin in the center of the town of Jairampur.The tiny hamlet was well lit with a festive mood.We made a quick round of all the stalls and tasted few of the local delicacies sold in one of the food stalls. After the inauguration we went back to our camp site spent a good amount of time interacting with other guests along with Raj Basu,one of the founder of Help Tourism who I would prefer to call as “The best story teller from the East”. We learnt so much about the region through the anecdotes that he has gathered over the years travelling all over the Eastern Himalayas. With the day well spent, we slept the night away. I ,of course with a hope of visiting the Lake Of No Return, the next day.

We started off early the next day. The pass to cross the border was getting processed while we waited for the main event to take off in Nampong. We sampled some amazing tribal cuisine, and experienced some truly memorable customs and cultural activities. Time seems to have frozen in this idyllic land and the humble and friendly tribesmen with their amazing hospitality and their laid back life seems to have cast a spell on all of us.

Then started a flurry of activities, as our group was informed that we had to collect our passes to cross over to Myanmar and so we rushed off to the army check post. It was quite a tussle to jostle our way through the crowd and getting ourselves a token for our vehicle that would help us to cross over to Myanmar.We were in for more adventure. At the next check post we were asked to get off our vehicle and travel by foot for the next two kms, as there was of all things- a traffic jam ! Must say that was a little unexpected. After trudging on 
bravely through a barely there muddy road, we managed to reach the next gate where we were greeted by another long winding queue of people waiting to get their passes. Lady luck it seemed was smiling in our direction that day and a chance encounter with one of the army personnel who forbade us from clicking photographs (although there wasn’t any sign or notice that said so) When I had the presence of mind to point this out, he immediately apologized and made it upon to us by letting us jump the queue by himself preparing the pass. Talk about army chivalry!

Then came the next pebble in the shoe. We had by this time, split into different groups and the five kms walk across the no man’s land that led to Myanmar, was better off crossed by pillion riding on some rickety bikes that seemed to have sprung out of thin air. The bike riders made quite a kill charging everone Rs 200 for two for the measly 5 kms. Since beggars can’t be choosers we hung on to our dear life. Chaos reined with some us on foot and some of us on the bikes .Once we reached the border, the pass was handed over to the army personnel on the other side and we proceeded to the helipad from where we had our first glimpse of the Lake of No Return. But it seems that lady luck had got a little tired of us and we were not given permission to visit the lake. It was quite a big blow for me,as this was to be one of the highlights of my trip.

We then decided to visit the colorful local markets or bazaars as they are known, though my heart was still with the Lake of No Return. Not a person to take a NO easily, my mind was working out strategies as to how to go near the lake, with little attention as to what was being sold in the bazaar where everyone seems to be more interested in. I decided to stroll around after buying a pack of Burmese Chiroot as a souvenir, intermittently asking people around as to how to reach the lake. Then a Burmese security guard appeared before me like manna from heaven, and offered to help me. We were not to take the usual route that everyone takes to reach the lake during the festival, instead hire the bikes and ride through the Pangsu Village downhill along the paddy fields.This was the opportunity I did not want to let go, though a nagging fear of what will happen if something happens to us four ladies was constantly buzzing. Nor was I suppose to leave everyone else and go for this adventure alone. Without giving much chance to others to even think as to what was happening, I stuck a deal with the two bikers with the help of the guard for Rs.200 per bike to reach us to the lake .We rode over narrow winding roads overlooking the scenic village of Pangsu. After around five kms we were told we reached..but in reality we were to tread another 5 kms or so of no road ,no path terrain to actually go near the lake.So it was all about language problem. The small village shop where the bikers decided to drop us off was selling roasted fish with local brew and few nick-knacks. It was sort of a saving grace as one villager there could manage to converse with us in broken Hindi as he often crossed border into India as a labour worker.I used him as my translator to bargain a deal with the bikers to reach us to the lake. And a deal was stuck for Rs.500 for the entire trip back to the Bazar.

After a tumultuous five kms of ride we finally reached the point where we had to cross the slushy patch and walk towards the lake. It was adventurous and risky as we were in an unknown land, with unknown boys but then sometimes intuition plays a big role while trusting people with your life. Or does it?

Then as we came face to face with the lake, it seemed worth every moment of our little adventure. It was a magical place, mesmerizing us with its sheer beauty.It is one of those places where you lose track of everything happening around you and the only thing that matters is the visual extravaganza in front of your eyes. I spent a few moments reveling in the peace and solitude that was like a soothing balm to my soul. Darkness was closing in upon us and halfheartedly we decided to go back. As we headed back, we looked back to capture the beauty of the landscape for one last time. As we headed back, all of us carried within us a slice of memory which will stay with us for a long time.

The next day, we revisited the war cemetery at Jairampur. It laid before us a silent testament to the people who had gone beyond their call of duty and laid down their lives for their country in the war against the Imperial Japanese Army.Discovered in the year 1997 the Jairampur graveyard must have been made during the construction of Stilwell Road from India to Kunming in China via Myanmar to facilitate easy transit for the Allied Forces. Fatigue, calamity, scarcity of food and diseases like malaria killed many of the soldiers and workers during that period. We sent our silent prayer to the almighty for cemetery to be brought out of its obscurity and the bodies that lay below there to have a dignified resting place!

We reached the festival venue again to sample some village life of various tribes as their huts were displayed in the festival ground. It was time to savor their quaint customs and culture. We explored the rustic tribal huts, each bearing the distinct style of the tribe who made it. Later in the day we visited the lush green Rima village.Later in the evening, we headed back to the festival venue to attend the night inauguration of a couple of speeches,programs and dances. After an enthralling Bihu performance we decided to call it a day and returned to the camp.

The day of our departure from the festival we were extremely lucky to meet up with Mr.Paitang Tikak ,the only surviving WWII veteran from the region.Nearly ninety years old he spends his time with his large family.

This trip has given me a collage of colorful memories to pin up on the wall of my mind forever. The winding lanes, the big hearted people, the ever-present lush foliage, shimmering rivulets, the serene lakes, nimble footed animals galloping past us , the fragrance of rare orchids and the multi colored butterflies flitting among us ,the visuals are countless. This combined with the unforgettable ethnic tribal experience, the eventful trip to the Lake of No Return and the festival made this trip truly nostalgic.

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