Planning a trip amidst COVID-19
COVID-19 and its aftermath posed one of the biggest problems in planning a trip this year. Like many of my colleagues and fellow servicemen, I had accumulated a lot of leaves that I had to consume within this calendar year lest they get lapsed. Earlier I had contemplated a couple of routes in the Northern states of Himachal and Uttarakhand. However, I decided to forego them in light of the recent surges in cases in and round Delhi and NCR—a gateway that I had to pass through for those aforementioned routes.
The North-Eastern Himalayas emerged as the only other viable region to step foot into. The seven-sister states had put stringent travel restrictions when the effects of the pandemic had surged elsewhere in India. They were also one of the last ones to ease out inter-state movements—so much so, that all the seven states, as of writing this, still have a mandatory COVID-test requirement for anybody arriving from any of the other states barring the seven-sister states. This has effectively made the North-East a mini isolated region within India from a pandemic containment point of view.
Each of the seven-sister states have set their own protocols regarding movement between state borders, COVID-19 testing requirements, and quarantine directives. It was difficult to find up-to-date information regarding these protocols online. Also, the ground reality and the actual implementation might be very different from what would be mentioned in the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). This is compounded by the fact that four of the seven states—Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram—require an Inner Line Permit (ILP) for Indian citizens to enter their territories.
I took a chance by booking a flight to Guwahati. In the worst-case, I would proceed to Meghalaya; and post-arrival if I test positive for COVID-19, I would gladly accept any form of quarantine in the lap of Himalayas. The worst-case seemed more enjoyable than spending my leaves aimlessly in my rented apartment in Bangalore.
At this point, I would like to introduce—or more aptly, re-introduce—two friends to the readers of this blog. The first one is Partho. He had earlier accompanied me in my failed trip to Goecha-La, in Munich and in Berlin. The second one is Subhajit. He had earlier accompanied me in Kedharkanta and in Yamunotri and in the multitude of travel plans over dinners in Bangalore that never materialised. Both of them grew up in the North-East and have very good idea about these places. Co-incidentally, both of them—while supporting my idea to visit Meghalaya—pointed me towards applying for Arunachal ILP. Shubhajit even connected me to Phurpa Tsering—a Lama friend of his at Mundgod. Partho on the other hand urged me to visit a certain Lama in Tawang called Thupten Phuntsok and his school called Manjushree. (More on both of them later.)
Arunachal had resumed its ILP services since the first of September. I applied for an eILP via their official portal in the morning of the fourth of December and received the approval the very same evening. After a nominal payment of INR 111, the link to download my eILP was activated. Arunachal issues ILP based on the districts one intends to visit. This would determine which checkpoints one can enter and exit through. I had applied for a permit that allowed me to travel through West Kameng and Tawang districts.
Certain political and cultural groups had called for a strike in Karnataka on the fifth of December. Consequently, all modes of public transport were to remain off the road. My only option was to leave the night before at around 11 o’clock and sleep at the airport before catching my early morning 5 o’clock flight to Guwahati. When I had last traveled via Bangalore airport a couple of weeks ago, they were controlling the number of people past security check to avoid overcrowding. This time I found that they were not doing so for the late night and early morning flights. This allowed me to access the vast area past the security gates and nap on the longs seats available near the shops. After having an early breakfast at 4 o’clock at the lounge, I boarded the flight and slept the entire way through to Guwahati.
I had earlier written that the ground reality and the actual implementation might be very different from what would be mentioned in the SOP. It was certainly true. It also became very apparent once I had collected by cargo bag and proceeded towards the exit gate.
Guwahati airport had implemented a strange testing protocol. I can only liken it to gripping very fine, dry sand—no matter how much one would try to contain it in their fist, a substantial amount would definitely slip off the grip. On paper, the protocol was very stringent—an instant swab-based Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) followed by an RT-PCR test. Since the latter takes some time, the passenger would have to either home quarantine himself for eight days or pay a fee for an expedited result and hope for a negative report. This is not required if the passenger wants to move on to a different state within the next 24 hours. I approached the Arunachal Pradesh tourism help desk at the airport. After checking my ILP and other documents, the person at the counter helped me fill an outstation form which only asked for an ID number, the destination and mode of transport. I booked an Uber to ISBT, filled the Uber driver’s taxi number in the form and deposited it to the counter before leaving the airport premises. Once I was in the taxi, I was technically free to roam anywhere—including Guwahati. This was a loophole that almost anyone can exploit. A person intending to skip the test could have filled Meghalaya as the destination and would not need to show any proof of his journey. Each of the seven-sister states have implemented their own testing protocols and have specified different validity of the test results. Thus it is possible that by the time one reaches a testing point in a sister state, either the protocol or the result itself would be invalid.
The lack of social distancing and face masks was evident on the roads of Guwahati and the packed buses that ran on them. The Uber driver told me that it used to be stringent until late-August but after that people as well as the authorities have stopped caring.
Guwahati ISBT was relatively empty. The pandemic had reduced tourism and inter-city movements. I booked a 10:30 am bus to Tezpur from the ASTC counter and bought some snacks to munch on during the trip before taking my seat in a relatively empty bus.
The bus reached Tezpur ASTC bus stand at 3:30 pm.
Shared SUVs to Arunachal—manely, Bomdila, Dirang and Tawang can be booked from a private counter in the ASTC stand itself. These vehicles depart between 5:30 am and 6:30 am in the morning. Thus, it was necessary for me to stay nearby. I booked a room at Kriti Lodge—a shabby and cheap hotel adjacent to the ASTC stand. In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend the place unless you are on an extreme budget.
My ILP’s validity was from the seventh of December. This meant that I still had a day to explore Tezpur before entering Arunachal Pradesh.