On Way to Nathu La….frozen vista

A sure way to get the patriotic adrenalin overflowing in any Indian’s vein is to mention China and Pakistan vis-a-via sports, trade, cricket, the 1962 Indo China war etc.  Nathu La, about 52 kms away from Gangtok the capital of Sikkim State, is the official border check post between China/Tibet and India and a reminder of friendship, enmity rolled into a hardball emotional quotient. The caterpillar queue crawling up the Himalayas on the day we too decided have a look at the famous pass is a reminder that we Indians love to memorialize. Indians need permission to visit Tsomgo Lake, Nathu La and surroundings as it is defense territory and for foreigners there is a different entry permit *. We have a head start as we our host had completed the necessary forms with our information and photo identities. It was a slow uphill drive to Tsomgo Lake through forest land, villages and monkey gangs sitting on parapets waiting for food tidbits. The surprising visual was of a few with begging bowls/ cups giving the impression of being tutored into the act. There was no stops for photos as  the driver insisted on proceeding to beat the drizzle, adding a folkloric tone to the ambience, turning into snow. Glad we listened as by the time we touched Tsomgo Lake the mild drizzle is ‘flurries’ and we halt at the Army Mess opposite the Lake.

Tsomgo or Changu Lake, a glacial lake in East Sikkim 40 kilometers from Gangtok and at an elevation of 3753 m, remains frozen during winter months. The  oval-shaped lake, 836 meters long and nearly 15 meters in-depth, is held in great reverence by the Sikkimese due to the healing-qualities of the water. In local Bhutia language  ‘Tso’ means lake and ‘Mgo’ is head …and jointly ‘source of lake’ is the setting of religious festivals and fairs on its shores.

The continuous snow fall, soft and sensuous, is a temptation for most tourists to step out from cars and one could see them trudging along the pathways to the Shiva Temple, the food kiosks and the sky lift. The waters are grey and gloomy, reflecting the stoic ice streaked mountains and the skies above and I think the Yaks too feel the weight of  their surroundings. I jump out of the car to whisper ‘cheer up’ in their ears but eliciting no response from the grouchiest of them all, refuse an  invitation to climb on the Yak’s back for a photo-op.  This is a land of ‘courtesy’ and ‘soft speak’ and I do not want to risk admonishment. 

The ‘steaming hot chai’ at the Army Mess revives our iced spirits and we agree to drive to Nathu La before the weather restricts vehicle movement. 

Nathu La:  We are breathing deep into camphor pieces tied to our wrists. One deep breath…second deep breath and I look around at the brooding mountains, faceless and voiceless, as patience plays the key role in reaching destination. We had already taken Acetazolamide Tablets (consult a doctor for dosage) as precaution against AMS (acute mountain sickness) but while the heart was willing the body was numbing. At Tsomgo, in my eagerness to see the yaks up close, I did not wait, to acclimatize, and within minutes felt woozy. My friends were sensible, they walked into the warm interiors of the Army Mess, watching my antics from behind glass panes. One can carry small oxygen cylinders for emergencies purchased before stat of journey.  

The rain turns into flurries, collecting in crevasses and stones along the road and we see cars parked along the kerb for their occupants to romp in the snow. The smooth refurbished road constructed by Border Roads Organization past village tin and wooden hamlets, fluttering prayer flags and army check posts is akin to driving in the city except for the occasional landslide fills and the workers, braving the cold and snow, working tirelessly to clear the way for army and tourist vehicles. This is a landslide prone region due to presence of sink holes, and for this reason tourist traffic is regulated. But seeing the number of oncoming and returning vehicles I wonder at what is ‘control’.

We cross Thegu which boasts of the highest altitude ATM in the world. The ATM is kept operational with a generator and a special fuel that does not freeze in high altitude. Again no stopping, our mini journey is one with too many checks and balances,  to take a ‘withdrawal slip’ as souvenir and we go ahead single file behind jeeps, SUVs, mini vans, trucks as we inch closer to our destination the gateway to Nathu La.  Our host gets a message that the Pass is off limits to tourists due to inclement weather and an India-China border meeting. It is a disappointment not getting to ‘look the Chinese in the eye’. Figuratively they   are meters away, the formal opening resulted in a stone-walled passageway replacing the barbed wires. The Tibetans had braved natural and man made impediments in their flight across the borders.  To a Tibetan ‘Nathu’ means ‘ listening ears’ and La means ‘pass’ and one can picture them listening to approaching Chinese footfalls as they made their way to safety and succour.

Present Rush to Gangtok

Nathu La, at an altitude of 14,140 feet and 52 km from Gangtok, was the ancient Silk Route connectivity between Lhasa, capital of Tibet, and Bengal in India. Mules from Tibet transported silk, musk pods, raw wool, medicinal plants, precious stones, gold and silverware and country liquor over to India and on return carried daily essentials, goods such as pens, cereals, watches, edible oils, cotton cloth, soaps, building materials taking around 20 to 25 days to reach their destination. The Indo China confrontation in 1962 ended all trade between the two countries and Nathu La became one of the three passes that were points of confrontation and meetings between the China and the Indian Army.

Nathu La had gained notoriety during British India days when in 1903–1904 a British mission entered Tibet to prevent Russian interference in Tibet. In 1904 the British captured Lhasa and set up trading posts at Gyantse and Agar and by 1815 the British had annexed territories belonging to Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan increasing trade along the border.

History is always interesting but here we were so close yet so far to ‘appreciate’ the place that saw the flight of the current Dalai Lama and the displaced people, the Chinese by Tibetan government and later Tibetan refugees when the People’s Republic of China annexed Tibet in 1950 and suppressed the 1959 uprising. The 1962 Indo China war saw Chinese troops enter Indian territory through Nathu La pass and this border post became a sore point in Indo Chinese history spawning patriotic songs, movies and an apology from the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to the nation. India’s defence complacency lay shattered and as we move on the present tar road to this border post we admire the resilience and courage of our soldiers in tackling unforseen events.

In 1975 Sikkim acceded to India, and Nathu La became Indian territory. China refused to acknowledge the accession at that time and the frosty relations between the two countries thawed a little with visit to China by the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpaye in 2003. Finally after prolonged talks there was a formal opening of Nathu La pass in 2006. Both India and China recognized the accessions, Tibet and Sikkim, by each country. 

An interesting aside is that throughout the cold vibes the only person permitted to cross the barbed wire frontier were postmen from both sides deliver letters across the border. The custom continues to this day even though the letters are dwindling and no conversation takes place while delivering and accepting mail, language barrier. a silent movie scene. Trade between two countries resumed after a lull and from Mondays to Thursdays, during summer time starting May 1. Again luck was not in favor as trade remained suspended on the day we there due to weather and border meetings. Restrictions by the Indian government is enforced on trafficking of wildlife products such as tiger and leopard skins and bones, shatoosh wool and bear gall bladders. Tibetan or Chinese duty-free exports include ‘goat skin, sheep skin, wool, raw silk, yak tail, yak hair, china clay, borax, butter, common salt, horses, goats, and sheep’. I did not go deeper into trade practices and licenses but admired a blanket from Tibet purchased by our host from one of the agents on the Indian side. .

There was no reason to hang around but go ahead towards Baba Harbhajan Singh’s shrine further ahead between Nathu La and Jelepla pass at an altitude of 13,123 ft.  Now here the road is bumpy, and as we go down to a valley we listen to the story of the legend, Major Harbhajan Singh, who had drowned in a glacier while leading a column of mules carrying supplies to a remote outpost. His remains were found after a three-day search and body cremated with full military honors. It is said that it was Harbhajan Singh himself who helped the search party find his body and through dream instructed one of his colleagues to build and support a shrine in his memory. Indian soldiers believe that in any event of war, Baba would warn Indian soldiers of any impending attack. What is more during flag meetings between the two armies the Chinese set aside a chair to honor Harbajan Singh or “Saint Baba”. On September 11 every year soldiers go with Harbajan Singh’s belongings to New Jalpaiguri and from here to his village, Kuka, in Kapurthala, Punjab. A berth is reserved for him and the seat remains empty. Soldiers posted at Nathu La contribute money every month to send to his family. The wide barren mountains, the remoteness from  civilization, adds the touch of mystical to the surroundings and we too believe that there is a Guardian Angel keeping us safe. The crowds, probably disappointed, at not seeing the famed Nathu La pass, throng the shrine with many leaving bottles of drinking water which they arrange to collect a few days later. It is believed that one can fulfill one’s wishes by drinking that water, an accessible Nathu La pass on next visit. Army trucks passing the shrine stop for soldiers to offer quick prayers before proceeding further.

I walk around the premises, wary of the crowds, reading the board with Harbhajan’s photo. On one side of the temple is his office, where he is believed to be still working and next to it is his dining place, his bedroom with his shoes and uniform ready. 

On the way to the Shrine we see signs that proclaim that ‘You’re in direct vision of the Chinese’ and further up ’Now your out of the Vision’. One wonders if the Chinese are sitting, standing or squatting with binoculars glued to their eyes scouting the vehicles come closer. At one point there is a big gap between two mountains and this is the ‘clearest view’ they have of Indian land. Once again I wish I could walk around, inspect the gap but being army territory it is out-of-bounds to civilians or unauthorised persons. 

We return to the Army mess,Tsomgo Lake, for lunch and rounds of tea and coffee. The weather prompted the army personal to allow civilians, wet and shivering in the cold, to share the cooked food prompting my friend, an army wife to add ‘trust the forces to be there always in times of need.’ I agree with her.

The weather was turning rogue and there was a scramble to retrace tires to Gangtok before landslides forced the road to close. We did and so did others and few meters away we were in queue. I snapped a picture of the opposite hill with its white caterpillar line and in the slow movement occupied my self with the sheer cliff drops, valleys, and cascading waters, the landslides narrowing the roads into ribbons and admire the dexterity and patience of our driver in staying calm, a change from the hit me-if-you-can attitude of drivers of Delhi.  We were lucky to reach Gangtok within reasonable time as landslides can stall traffic for hours. 

Singh, our driver

Things to know:

Protected Area Permits. 

  1. 1. Permits for Nathu la, Tsomgo (Changu) Lake and Baba Mandir are issued only to Indians and foreigners are not allowed here. Permits are available at Police Check Post, Sikkim Tourism Department, through travel agents or tour operators who organize the trips. 

2. You will need to carry a Photo ID proof like passport, voter’s ID card, driving license etc. PAN card is not accepted.

3. Foreign nationals can get Restricted Area Permit (i.e. Inner Line Permit) online from the website https://sikkimpts.azurewebsites.net/ilp/Register. While filling up the online application form select a Tour Operator out of a long assorted list, enter date of arrival, passport & visa details, your email address, upload your photo etc. Once done, you can self print the permit. There is no charge. However, what you get is known as Provisional ILP. You need to finally get it stamped at one of the border check posts of Sikkim.