As an Air Force officer, I was part of an ACT (Aircraft Control Team), along with a young Army Captain. We were to operate atop a hill in the Bomdi La- Se La area of Arunachal Pradesh. The Captain was already at the designated hill (12,000+ feet AMSL), along with the army jawans that made up the ACT. I was told to report at Upper Senge, which was at 9000 feet for acclimatisation. Here, I was issued with high altitude clothing and allotted a room in the transit Officers’ Mess. The CO of thetransit camp asked me to just walk around in the mornings to get used to the altitude. I was mighty pleased since, as the sole Air Force officer in an Army environment, I was being treated as a VIP.
On the second day, soon after lunch, as I was preparing for a siesta, there was a knock on the door. I opened the door to see a jawan salute smartly and inform me that the Command Intelligence Officer wanted to see me in the evening at the Divisional HQ. A jeep would be there to take me to the place. When queried, the jawan told me that “Major saab ke bunker mein dinner hai” (There is dinner organised at the Major’s bunker).
Come evening and I was ready for the 45 minute drive to Divisional HQ. We drove along the Bomdi La – Se La-Tawang highway, the road snaking its way around the mountainous terrain, going over culverts and small bridges. The view throughout was breathtaking and finally we reached our destination, where, “Welcome to Shangri La” was written in huge and colourful letters. Flags of all hues and colours were fluttering astride the board, but of the bunkers there was no visible sign. Some Jawans were going about their work, but nothing else was visible.
The jeep had halted besides a couple of flower pots. “Sir, lift the net and go in to the bunker. Major Saab is waiting for you,” the driver said, pointing towards a faint path from the flower pots to a hole in the ground.
I lifted the net and saw a hole which actually was a trap-door. A few steps had been carved out. I descended and was stunned by what I saw! It was a room, 10’ x 6’ in dimension. The walls had translucent corrugated sheets with a couple of tube lights illuminating the room. In one corner was a wooden bed with a mosquito net hanging from a wooden frame. From the top of the bunker a thick braided rope with a bushy end was swaying gently in the breeze created by a table fan. Next to the bed was a bedside table with a decorative lamp glowing. At the other end was a writing table, with a lamp and a photo frame housing a family photograph within. A “Wow!” escaped my mouth.
“Welcome, friend to ShangriLa”, said the Major who had been watching me while lying on the bed. He introduced himself and I was pleasantly surprised that he bore the same surname as mine. “When I heard that a Flying Officer Chhibbar is at the transit officers mess, I decided to get you across,” the Major said with an impish smile.
“Sir, I would not have believed this was a bunker; this is truly amazing” I blurted while shaking his hand.
“This is nothing. Go through that opening, ” he said, pointing to a curtain at one end of the room. I lifted the curtain to see a dressing room where the Major’s uniforms, boots and other paraphernalia were kept. Another opening ushered me into the washroom. I was impressed to see a western style WC and when I pulled the handle, water gushed from the small tank in to the flush pot!
“No one standing outside would ever be able to make out the grandeur that lies within!” I exclaimed. “Buddy, learnt from the Ramayana to enjoy life in any environment,” the Major said, grinning. “What would you like to drink?”
“Sir, a whisky would do,” I responded. The Major went towards the bed and yanked at the rope hanging there. Like Jack-in-the-box, a soldier appeared at the entrance. The Major asked him to fix two drinks and bring some snacks too. “The rope is connected to a bell in my batman’s bunker,” the Major said as he saw my astonished look. A couple of the Major’s friends arrived and we had a wonderful evening in the 5 Star bunker.
On my way back I reflected upon what I had witnessed. I did not see a single unhappy soldier. Everyone appeared content and going about their tasks willingly. The entire mountainside emanated vibes of peace and serenity, that I had not seen elsewhere. The Army had truly carved out this place and aptly named it “Shangri La”.
In a low whisper I said to no one in particular “If there is a heaven on earth then this is it, this is it, this is it!”
Air Commodore Ashok Chhibbar, AVSM was commissioned in the IAF as a fighter pilot in Aug 1969. Apart from commanding a fighter squadron and two airbases, he has been Air-I of an Operational Command and Deputy Commandant of Air Force Academy. He is a regular contributor to the Air Force Flight Safety Magazine and has authored two books – Raindrops, and The Accidental Pilot. He is settled in Pune.