As the followers of my Facebook and Instagram feeds might know already, I visited Mechuka in the first week of April and you might have seen the teaser images too. But I have held back the details so far because the real travelogue is being published in the Discover India’s Northeast Magazine.
UPDATE: Now you can read the full travelogue here.
For the rest, here is a comprehensive DIY guide… especially for budget travellers. My intention was to complete it without spending more than INR 5000. I ended up spending slightly more than 6000 at the end.
Where exactly is Mechuka?
Mechuka is located in the West Siang district, on the Northern parts of Arunachal Pradesh, not very far from the Chinese border at an altitude of more than 1800 metres.
How far is Mechuka and which are the routes one can take?
It is 180 kms from Aalo (also spelt Along.. I will use both the spellings alternately) which is 100 kms from Pasighat which is around 30 kms from Murkongselek. Silapathar to Aalo is more than 140 KMs. This may sound confusing, so have look at the maps.
This shows the route from Murkongselek through Pasighat. You see that the route is same after Aalo. The place Jonai mentioned here is actually the town that has Murkongselek as the train station, the last station in this line. You can get local transport from here to Pasighat and then shared Tata Sumos.
Which is the nearest railhead to Mechuka?
It is a tricky question. Basically there is nothing near to it. You must have heard different names like Simen Chapari, Likabali, Silapathar, and Murkongselek. This is because there are at least two main routes to reach Along. You can get into one of the shared Tata Sumos from either Silaptahar or Pasighat to Aalo. From there onward the route is the same till Mechuka. You will have to halt at Aalo and hop into another shared car the next morning. As mentioned before, if you are coming from Dibrugarh on the Southern Banks of Brahmaputra, you will have to cross the river on a ferry. Eventually you will find your way to Silapathar and then you can continue as mentioned above.
Why even go that far?
Mechuka is a not very vast plateau on the banks of the river Siyom. It has hard to image such a plain stretch after a steep climb along the winding roads. The geography is unique and so are the people. Also, if you are a biker, this will be one of your most challenging rides. Do note that while Mechuka has become the accepted spelling, the complete spelling is Menchukha and it can be seen etched on one of the hills.
So, why did you not take the Dibrugarh route?
Yes, some people first reach Dibrugarh because it has regular flights from rest of the country. As a budget traveller, I preferred the train and took the one to the last station. If you do take the flight, keep in mind that eventually it will take another day because you will have to cross the river and come northwards. But crossing the river on a ferry can also be an experience, so you can do that if you really want to.
What is the best time to visit Mechuka?
You must visit in the post monsoon and winter season. I almost made a mistake by visiting in April. Although technically April is not the rainy season but in the North East, rain comes early, and heavily. So, I suggest not to take a chance with April either and wrap it up between November and March. This is how the trek to a nearby hill looked like after the rains (In case you are wondering, no I could not complete the trek).
How is the road to Mechuka?
It is not as bad as the public perception is. There are some smooth stretches interspersed with a few rough patches. However, rains can dramatically alter the scenario and make the roads disappear, as I found out during my return. It is similar to if not easier than those in Hindustan Tibet Highway or Pangi valley that I have experienced. However, there are no public buses plying in most of the routes.
How to visit Mechuka with public transport?
The only public transport available to Mechuka is the shared Tata Sumo cars mentioned before. The timings of these cars both from Aalo and Mechuka are 5:30 o’clock in the morning. They do not run at any other time. If you miss them, you will be stranded for another day. Aalo also has an airport but I do not think any civilian aircrafts go there.
What is the shared car cost to Mechuka?
Aalo to Mechuka fare is INR 450. Pasighat to Aalo is INR 300. Silapathar to Aalo should be somewhere in between considering the distance although I did not take that route.
How much time does it take to reach Mechuka?
It takes around 8 hours to reach Mechuka from Aalo. It takes around 5 hours from Pasighat to Aalo. It should take around 6-7 hours from Silapathar to Aalo.
But to reach Pasighat, you have to get some local bus or shared tempos from Murkongselek (the last railhead). Just outside the station you will find electric Rickshaws that will take you to nearby “Ruksin Gate” from where you will get shared cars to Pasighat and it will take anything between 45 mins to 1 hour. Somewhere in between, at a checkpost, your Inner Line Permits will also be checked.
Where do I book these shared cars?
There are booking counters for the shared cars in every town. They are mostly located in the main market areas, so they should not be hard to find. Make sure that you book your seats for the next day’s travel as early as possible, so as not to risk getting stranded. Also, do note that the cars to Mechuka leave early in the morning and nothing afterwards. If you miss them, you will not get anything for the rest of the day.
Are there buses to Mechuka?
Practically no! I heard of one bus when I was googling in preparation for the trip but on the ground I never saw one. I asked a few locals but they also said there are no buses to and from Mechuka. I guess it was not very popular or practical and was scrapped.
Where to get petrol in Mechuka?
If you are taking your own vehicle, you should fill your tanker latest at Aalo. I did not see any petrol pump after that. Locals sell petrol and diesel in jerrycans in the market but they will be priced at a premium.
What other shops are there in Mechuka?
There are shops selling shoes, jackets, and basic items. If you do forget your jacket and find it to be too cold out there, you can buy one out there.
Do phone networks work in Mechuka?
Only BSNL works at Mechuka. My Airtel worked till Aalo (data service worked too) but disappeared soon after I left the town.
Is there an ATM at Mechuka?
There is NO ATM here. There is one or two at Aalo but even the one I checked was not working. In short, withdraw whatever cash you need much before you enter Arunachal.
Where to stay in Mechuka?
Thankfully accommodation in Mechuka is not really a problem. There are several homestays coming up sensing the increasing tourist influx. I reckon there are at least a dozen homestays out there apart from the government rest house. The rest house probably needs prior booking. But there is no need for it as you can just opt for one of the homestays.
I stayed at a homestays called Almost Heritage. It is a small but comfortable home with wooden flooring. The staff is helpful. The bathroom was across the hall. They also provided home cooked food at decent rates.
What are the hotel rates in Mechuka?
I paid INR 500 per day for my single room at Almost Heritage. Double rooms will be in the north of 800. I guess the rates at other places will also be the same.
How is the weather in Mechuka?
It snows in the winter. During the summer months it is not that cold although it was a bit chilly when I was there as it was raining most of the time. Still I survived with no warm clothing.
What cultures do you encounter in Mechuka?
It is primarily inhabited by Memba people who are historically connected to Tibet and they follow Tibetan Buddhism. There is also a big Indian army presence here and they are building a mini airport right next to the main market. Some other communities are present too, who follow Donyi Polo and Christianity.
What language do they speak at Mechuka? Should I learn something before I go there?
While Arunachal has dozens of communities with their own language and culture, Hindi has been officially pushed as the lingua franca for decades. So, everybody speaks Hindi. Basic Hindi and English should be enough for your survival.
What are the food options at Mechuka?
There are several restaurants in the market area selling basic stuff like tea, packed snacks and usual Tibetan food items. My homestay on the other hand served good basic Indian food with unlimited rice. It is also possible to order Maggi.
What other activities can be done at Mechuka?
Apart from enjoying the scenery, you can visit the local monastery and trek up to the hills surrounding the valley for a better view. For a more serious trekking experience, one can trek to a nearby high altitude lake. A local guy told me that it takes around three days to visit it and return and one needs a local guide, a porter and supplies. So, overall it gets a bit expensive for a solo, budget traveller. I skipped it this time but will be back in a few months with more resources, better preparation and may be a team.
Where to get the inner line permit?
I got mine from Arunachal Bhavan in Delhi. It took only 15 mins. In comparison it took two days in Guwahati when I got the same for Namdapha. In short, if you are coming from outside, get it done in Delhi for a hassle free experience. The people in Guwahati office are archaic enthusiasts of the dreaded red tape. Avoid them like plague unless you live in Assam.
As for the cost, I was charged INR 200 for a permit of 7 days. Although PAPs for foreign nationals I guess are costlier.
UPDATE regarding Arunachal ILP (2018):
As I was getting IPL again for my recent trip, I realized that the process has improved a lot. Now you can get ILP from Guwahati on the same day. Basically you have to submit your documents at the Rukminigaon office before 2 PM and come back at around 4 PM to collect it. Also, it cost only INR 25 to me although it was a very short trip for me.
Finally, should I carry my stock of Old Monk for this trip?
No. There are enough wine shops in Mechuka and for that matter in any other place you are likely to cross. Get over this big city snobbery. These people know how to live a good life.