In this age of unsolicited check-in suggestions from Google and heavily filtered discoveries on Instagram, it is heartening that a place like Mechuka throws up a surprisingly low number of matches on search engines and social media. It could be blamed on the town’s relative inaccessibility. I know it has my thanks.
Mechuka, also called Menchukha by locals, is a portmanteau of men (medicine), chu (water) and kha (snow). One look at the snow-capped peaks that ring the valley is all it takes to imbibe the therapeutic value of the view. Mechuka sits at 6,000 feet but the cold winds coursing down the peaks makes it feel higher. The bracing cold is only the first of many surprises here.
Given that Mechuka lies less than 30 kilometres from the border with China, the influence of Tibetan Buddhism is expected. What is surprising however, is a cave shrine dedicated to Guru Nanak. It is believed that in the early 16th century Guru Nanak travelled through these mountains on his way to Tibet, and the region abounds with folklore about him. In Mechuka, he is known as Nanak Lama and worshipped as a Guru Rinpoche or “the precious one.” His shrine, known as Taposthan, is a perfect example of Indian syncretism. It is a short drive and small trek away from the main town and was accidentally discovered by an army officer over 30 years ago. Today, the Indian Army maintains the shrine and also runs a gurdwara nearby.
A short drive from the gurdwara is a rock formation resembling a monkey’s face. It is said that these rocks were found by the staff of the Border Roads Organisation. Soon enough, a religious interpretation followed and today, the spot is home to a Hanuman Temple.
The 400-year-old Samten Yongcha Gompa, about 20 minutes from town, is as important as the better-known Tawang Gompa. It is surprisingly free of visitors, perhaps because the only way to access it is a 45-to-60-minute climb. More than the trek, what takes your breath away is the jaw-dropping view of the entire valley from the cliff’s edge. The gompa is often shut and the caretaker might be away, but don’t let that deter you from savouring some of the best vistas in Mechuka.
Gompas are built at a height for protection and to make people work for benediction. It also means that they afford great views and the SamdenChoelingGompa or New Gompa, a short drive from the town, shows Mechuka sprawled around the Indian Air Force airstrip. It is also a great spot to watch Mechuka winding down for the night.
Equally rewarding is a walk along the snow-fed waters of the Siyomriver, the lifeline around which Mechuka originally grew. The many suspension bridges over its swift flow test your nerve as you cross them. The locals however don’t face any such fears as young children and mothers with infants tied to their backs skip across the bridges with the agility and ease of a mountain goat.
Since 2013, Mechuka has hosted Adventure@Mechuka, an adventure sports festival that offers a range of activities including paragliding, quad biking, trap shooting, rafting, kayaking, water zorbing, zip lining, and horse riding. There are also several competitions organised such as the International Paragliding Accuracy Open Competition for gliders from across the subcontinent; the Mechukha Downhill Mountain Bike Championship, a cycling tour from Aalong to Mechukha; a Riders’ Meet across motorcycle marques; and the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Car Rally for which contestants drive from Mechuka to Thimphu and back.
A section of the festival has food and handicraft stalls set up by the locals and replicas of traditional homes are created to showcase the region’s cultural diversity. Stalls serve freshly made chhaang, a millet beer widely brewed in the region, that goes especially well with the cultural shows often featuring rock bands from the country. Last year Parikrama, Pulse Pundit, and Fifth Dimension performed alongside Indian Idol winners and local cultural groups.
In 2018, put Mechuka on your travel list. And visit the little mountain town before the crowds get to it.
All photos are by Manan Dhuldhoya.
Getting There Mechuka is about 900 km/2-3 days by road from Guwahati, which has the closest international airport. The journey is long but rewarding. A shorter, more exciting way to get to Mechuka from Guawahati is a 3-hr helicopter ride (www.skyoneairways.in).
Stay Close to the town square is the homestay Gayboo’s Traditional Lodge. The family is friendly, the rooms cosy, and the traditional meals will warm your heart (www.gtlhomestay.com, doubles from Rs1,000).
Eat Mechuka isn’t geared for tourists yet, so there aren’t any graded restaurants around. There are some small eateries clustered around the town square but your best bet is to ask your homestay hosts for a traditional meal. Have a spicy thukpa for breakfast and wash it down with some butter tea.