Nathu La Pass…..Whispering Boulders

Continuing my Sikkim trip:…Two days of immersing in Sikkimese culture and lore we were on way to Nathu La, a Pass that unintentionally manipulates emotions to jingoistic levels.

Gangtok: 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, the Indo-Pak wars etc.  For me it was all this and a chance to set foot in Nathu La Pass in East Sikkim. The Pass, 4,500m above sea level and 52 kms away from Gangtok, is a must visit for its rugged landscape and the closest one could get to the legendary Silk Road route meandering through India and Tibet.

In the present, the Nathu La is the official border check post between China/Tibet and India and a reminder of friendship and enmity rolled into a hardball emotional quotient.

The car queue wormed its way through the narrow streets of Gangtok, where we were staying, towards the Military check post on outskirts for clearance to proceed further. Our host had completed the necessary forms with our information and photo identities and after a wait of over thirty minutes we were on our way towards one of the highest motorable roads in the world at 14,450 feet above sea level. Indians need permission to visit Tsomgo Lake, Nathu La and surroundings as this is defence territory. For foreigners the permission is only till Tsomgo Lake.

On a clear day the slow moving traffic is a boon as one can see the route winding down the valley and the magnificent Chomolhari peak of Bhutan towards the East. But, unfortunately, it was turning into a cloudy, flurry day and the overflowing hilly streams, road construction blocks, traffic snarls was adding to our woes we could do without. The slow uphill drive to Tsomgo Lake through verdant forest land and villages with monkey gangs sitting on parapets with begging bowls/ cups giving the impression of being tutored into the act, was worth documenting. We had to listen to the driver as he wanted to beat the drizzle turning into flurries and by the time we reached Nathu La our drive was at the mercy of endless cabs and their drivers. They were the ‘Lords of the Roads’.

Cabs and cabs

As predicted the mild drizzle turned into snow and it was a sight to witness prancing tourists, mostly from neighbouring West Bengal, enjoying the snowfall. Their cabs and private cars were parked on the culverts and alongside roads giving them the satisfaction of walking in real fresh snow. We went ahead for a tea break at the Army Mess opposite Tsomgo Lake,(arranged by same friend) and in the bleary setting the flamboyant red iconic gate was a welcoming halt.

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. This iconic oval-shaped glacial lake, 836 meters long and nearly 15 meters in-depth, is held in great reverence by the Sikkimese (local) 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. We were here in ending winter month, in May, and the Lake was still frozen. It is by August, the snow melts in to a dazzling cerulean water body surrounded with blossoming flowers, irises, primulas, multi-shaded poppies and rhododendrons, forming a colourful wreath around the lake. Medicinal and exotic plants are cultivated in and around the lake during summer season.

The stark winter appearance is dabbed with colours by the majestic and flamboyantly attired Yaks with red painted horns, their handlers, multi-hued temples and food kiosks and chattering tourists. A niggle, of missing the brighter side of the summer season, persisted as we clomped in the snow within the vicinity of the Lake.

The Yaks too feel the weight of their surroundings. I jumped out of the car to whisper ‘cheer up’ in their ears but eliciting no response from the grouchiest of them all, I refuse the owner’s request to climb on the Yak’s back, for a photo-op.  This is a land of ‘courtesy’ and ‘soft speak’ and I did not want to risk admonishment. 

The continuously descending snow, soft and sensuous, is a temptation for most tourists to step out from cars. One could see the brave-hearts 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.

The ‘steaming hot chai’ at the Army Mess revives our iced spirits and we hasten on our way to Nathu La before the weather restricted further vehicle movement. 

Nathu La: The flurries are getting over zealous collecting in crevasses and stones along the road and we see cars parked along the kerb for a breather. The smooth refurbished road constructed by Border Roads Organization snakes 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. We wave at the road 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 kept operational with a generator and special fuel that does not freeze in high altitude. Again no stopping, our mini journey is one with too many checks and balances, to follow single file behind jeeps, SUVs, mini vans, trucks as we inch closer to our destination the gateway to Nathu La. In between the driver is informed by phone that the Nathu La Pass is off limits to tourists due to inclement weather and an India-China border meeting.

Finally the mini wall is visible and the excitement plus the air quality makes us inhale 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 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 acclimatise, 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 start of journey.

The unexpected disappointment of being so close and yet so far, of not getting to ‘look the Chinese in the eye’. Figuratively they are a few steps away as a stone-walled passageway has replaced the barbed wires. This was once the desolate terrain that Tibetans had braved in their flight across the borders. In Tibetan ‘Nathu’ means ‘listening ears’ and La means ‘pass’ and as we stood near the check post I could visualise them listening to approaching Chinese footfalls as they made their way to safety and succour.

Nathu La had gained notoriety during British India days when in 1903–1904 a British mission had entered Tibet to prevent Russian interference in Tibet. In 1904 the British captured Lhasa and set up trading posts at Gyantse and Agar and annexed territories belonging to Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan linking Lhasa, capital of Tibet with 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 essential goods such as pens, cereals, watches, edible oils, cotton cloth, soaps, building materials taking around 20 to 25 days to reach their destination.

History makes us comprehend the place that was responsible for the string of flight from the current Dalai Lama, the Chinese by Tibetan government and later Tibetan refugees when the People’s Republic of China annexed Tibet in 1950. 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 had been exposed and ended all trade between the two countries. Nathu La became one of the three passes that were points of confrontation and meetings between the China and the Indian Army.The confrontation has spilled into the present.

In 1975 Sikkim had acceded to India and Nathu La became Indian territory. At that time China refused to acknowledge the accession. 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, in 2006, after prolonged talks there was a formal opening of Nathu La pass. Both India and China recognized the accessions, Tibet and Sikkim, by each country. 

An interesting aside is that throughout the cold vibes the one person permitted to cross the barbed wire frontier was a postman from both sides to deliver letters across the border. During our mini grumpy walk around we were told about the custom still being prevalent, even though the letters are dwindling. The surprising part is that no conversation took place while delivering and accepting mail, a silent movie reel.

Trade between two countries resumed after a lull and during summer time. Again luck was not in favour as the day we were there trading was also suspended due to inclement 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 earlier, from one of the agents on the Indian side. Walls and barriers are no hindrance for people to people communique. The Indian side was crowded, tourists, truckers, traders, army personal. A few minutes later we left hoping to return another day.

There was no reason to hang around at Nathu La but go ahead towards Baba Harbhajan Singh’s shrine further ahead between Nathu La and Jelepla pass at an altitude of 13,123 ft. The road was bumpy, and as went down the valley we listened to the legend of Major Harbhajan Singh, The Major 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 a dream instructed one of his colleagues to build and support a shrine in his memory. Indian soldiers believe that Baba warns 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 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 and mythical to the believe that there is a Guardian Angel keeping us safe.

The tourists, probably disappointed at not seeing the famed Nathu La pass, thronged the shrine with many leaving bottles of drinking water which they arranged to collect a few days later. It is believed that one can attain one’s wishes by drinking that water, 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 said to be still working and next to it is his dining place, his bedroom with his shoes and uniform ready to wear. 

On the way to the Shrine we had seen signs ‘You’re in direct vision of the Chinese’ and further up ’Now you are out of the Vision’. One wonders if the Chinese are sitting, standing or squatting with binoculars glued to their eyes watching the vehicles coming 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 always be helpful in times of need.’ I agreed with her.

The weather was turning rogue and there was a scramble by private vehicles to retrace way to Gangtok before landslides forced the road to close. We did and so did others and few meters away we were in a 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, cascading waters and landslides narrowing the roads into ribbons. One admires the dexterity and patience of driver in staying calm, a change from the hit me-if-you-can attitude of New Delhi drivers.  We were lucky to reach Gangtok within reasonable time as later landslides had stalled traffic for hours/days. 

The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for.

On way to Nathu La Pass. A snippet

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