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On The Road: Mini-monks, giant chapatis and terrible tea in north-east India

September 14, 2010

By Vanessa Betts
The Independent (UK)
September 11, 2010

It's hard to pinpoint the best thing about
western Arunachal Pradesh, but it's easy-peasy to
put your finger on the worst. Undoubtedly, it's
the yak-butter tea. The oily slicks on the tea's
surface are disturbing enough, but then a rancid
salty taste tinged with decaying leaves causes my
throat to constrict on impact. Just two days into
my Arunachal journey and I've already imbibed
three doses of this in friendly villagers' homes.

I've started declining any invitation indoors, so
strong is my dread of another greasy brew.

In the Tawang Valley, it's not only the tea where
the Tibetan influence is strong. This disputed
region on the Chinese border is almost
exclusively Buddhist: gompas, stupas and prayer
wheels cling to the infinite slopes of the valley
walls. Accessed via the Sela Pass (4,260m) and
cut off by snow for weeks every winter, foreign
tourists require an "inner-line permit" in order
to enter the state -- hence few are seen in this secretive place.

And at 5am this morning it seems I am, in fact,
the only tourist. I'm walking to the Galden
Namgyal Lhatse, the largest monastery of Mahayana
Buddhism outside of Tibet. More than 400 monks
study here, and their day begins by chanting ancient texts inside the Dukhang.

Though the monastery dominates the view from all
over town, I am unsure of the best route in the
darkness and weaving ever upwards is tough work
at 3,300m. I totter into the temple forecourt
panting unbecomingly – into a scene that
resembles nothing more than school break-time,
with scores of burgundy-clad mini-monks playing tug-of-war games and tag.

Ushered inside, things get more serious as the
mantras begin. Ancient murmurings and
monosyllabic droning takes over, the minutes
drift by as the gigantic golden Buddha watches on.

Suddenly, the humdrum dispels the sacred, as
giant-sized chapatis with vast blobs of steaming
cabbage are doled out – and I am thrilled to be served breakfast, too.

It is amazingly, if surprisingly, delicious. But
alas, the inevitable happens: it's all to be
washed down with a lovely cup of hot yak-butter tea.

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