Travelling to Bum La: A Paradisiac Escape to Nature and Patriotism
It’s a fine clear morning. I was told that the route to Bum La offers mesmerising panoramic views of snow-capped mountain ranges and blue lakes but both the weather and the roads are treacherous. I had planned my trip around mid-November to get the best of clear skies, jewel-coloured lakes, the first glimpses of snow, and avoid possibilities of a bad weather.
Located about 37 km from Tawang at a height of 15,200 ft above the sea level, Bum La demarcates the Indian and Chinese mainland. This historically significant pass boasts of heavenly landscapes and lakes making it one of the most visually tempting attractions of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
On reaching Tawang the previous day, I booked my local car for visiting Bum La. Here, you can’t take any other transportation except the local permitted vehicles. Also, you need to get a special permit from the Office of the Deputy Commissioner in Tawang to visit Bum La. For citizens of India, you need to submit photocopies of your photo ID proof, address proof, passport size photo, and the Inner Line Permit for visiting Arunachal Pradesh (ILP).
As planned, my local car driver Sooraj arrived with his Tata Sumo at the hotel for pick up at 8:00 am. By then, I stuffed myself with a heavy breakfast and checked on Kamal (my dear driver for my entire Arunachal sojourn) if he was ready. The other day, I had requested Kamal to accompany me to Bum La and being the kind man he is, he instantly gave me his word. Without wasting time, we quickly started off our journey to Bum La.
“We won’t be stopping much on this route. The roads are very bad after Y-Junction. We have limited time to visit and return. We have to come down by 2 pm” said Sooraj, smiling back while adjusting his aviators. “I understand but boy, I need the best shots”, I quipped. Sooraj laughed and assured that he will do his bit. He turned on the music, a bit loud, and sped up.
Historical and Military Significance of Bum La
In the year 1962, it was through this route that the People’s Liberation Army of China invaded India which eventually led to one of the fiercest battles of Sino-Indian conflict. The area also includes the route taken by the 14th Dalai Lama when he escaped from China and took refuge in India.
In 2006, the pass was reopened after the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict for the first time. Traders and postal workers from both sides were allowed to enter each other’s territories.
Currently, Bum La serves as a location for Indo-China Border Personnel Meeting (BPM) between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army of China. Meetings for interactions and consultations are regularly held to help defuse face-offs. Besides Bum La, there are only three locations in India where such BPMs are held between these two countries – Nathu La in Sikkim, Chushul in Ladakh, and Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand.
There are several check posts of the Indian army on the way to Bum La. On reaching Y-junction, the car stopped behind a queue of tourist cars. Here is a check post where you need to show your permit and relevant documents for verification. The drivers of each vehicle also need to show their car permits. While both Sooraj and Kamal went to have the documents verified, I quickly took some shots of the mesmerising location of Y-junction.
It took just a few minutes for verification and we started our journey again. The roads are bad and the bumpy ride begins and continues up to the destination. The roads are narrow and dusty too, and vehicles need to move in a queue most of the time. However, the long, corrugated mountain ridges and the charm of the lakes cast a spell while you are continuously tossed inside the car.
Given the unpredictability of the roads, weather, and the fixed timings of visit, you can’t stop the car here and there except at scheduled locations. Additional time is also wasted because throughout the route, the upward vehicles need to halt whenever army vehicles are moving down. It’s also the same at various locations where road repairing jobs are being done. Below are some of the glimpses of the route.
It took us almost three hours to reach Bum La. The chilling winds felt like stripping off your skin and soon numbness set in. The first thing to do here is to get your permit stamped at the counter along with a number. The number is given on first-come-first-served basis and it is needed by the military to divide the tourists in groups and take them along the border. Once your stamped document is ready and a minimum number of tourists have arrived, you will be called by the numbers to stand in a queue.
There was a big group of 26 people before us. The military, however, doesn’t allow more than 20 people in a group and so, 6 people were asked to wait to join the next group. Till a previous group visits and returns from the border, the other groups aren’t allowed to move in beyond the check point.
The Indian military men are very hospitable and as the first group went ahead, we were soon asked to take refuge in a big hall to avoid the chilling winds. They also provide hot tea and water in a self-service kiosk right in front of the hall. No photography is allowed in the premises (especially of the buildings) without military permission. We sipped hot tea sitting in the cosy hall and waited for the group to return.
It was almost half an hour that we could see the group return looking from the windows of the hall. I, along with Kamal, came out and stood near the check point to hand over our stamped document to the military personnel in charge. He took the papers and asked us to form a queue and wait till all the 20 people of the group cross the check point and leave/enter the hall.
Soon, other people handed over their documents and stood behind us while the military personnel verified the members by calling out the numbers given on each document. On filling 20 people in our group, another military personnel asked us to follow him to the border without breaking the queue. All of us were excited for this experience. Within seconds, the personnel we had handed our documents to joined us.
We walked past the concrete pathway fighting the winds and shiver and about 7 minutes later, we stand right at the India-China border. The entire pathway is decorated with placards of various art forms representing each state of India which looked beautiful in such a mighty background of the Himalayas.
Once we reached the border, we could see the Chinese land and the Indian military personnel started to narrate the significance and the history of Bum La. Beside lies the Rock of Peace, which signifies peace between the two territories and also the Heap of Stones monument where the border personnel of both countries place a pebble painted with the date of meeting as a token.
Photography is allowed with limitations. The army restricts photography of certain peaks and ranges for security reasons. As responsible citizens of India, we should abide by the rules as Bum La isn’t just any other tourist destination. Below are a few photographs taken with permission.
As there are other groups waiting behind and everything has to be wrapped within a given time frame, the army doesn’t allow you more than 10 minutes for photography for the entire group. We were quickly asked to get back in the queue and walk back, again accompanied by the personnel.
As you see the army on duty and face the harsh weather conditions our soldiers endure for the country, you walk back with a sense of patriotism, gratitude, and pride. Salute!
You can collect memoirs of the Indian Army from the same counter you showed your documents to and received your number. I collected an army badge with a nominal fee.
Other Places of Interest in and Around Bum La
The local car that you hire from Tawang to visit Bum La also offers sightseeing to other places of interest located within the same area.
PTSO Lake: Pangateng Tso Lake is known for its captivating seasonal beauty. During winter, the lake is frozen and the extensive area around the lake also offers skiing adventures.
Shungetsar Lake: A natural lake created by an earthquake, this breathtaking lake is now popularly known as Madhuri Lake after Bollywood actor Madhuri Dixit who shot a song sequence for the film ‘Koyla’ here. You shouldn’t give this beauty a miss!
How to Reach Bum La
There are no other transportation options other than hiring local cars from Tawang (37 km). Also note that without a permit from the Office of the Deputy Commissioner in Tawang, we can’t visit Bum La Pass.
Local cars that mostly run on this route are Tata Sumo and some Scorpios. There are no other options available. A Tata Sumo charges Rs. 5000 for the day trip.
Best Time to Visit
The summer months and the months of October and November are the best times to visit Bum La. Avoid the monsoons and extreme winters as roads remain close.