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India: Sikkim: Gangtok, Nathula
Nathula, Sikkim, India: Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
The statement in the Hindi language highlights the brotherhood shared between India and China. Nathula is the border point that separates India and China. The Nathula Pass is located at an elevation of 14,140 feet and ranks amongst the highest points that tourists can visit using motorable roads.
Nathula Pass is about 70 kms from Gangtok, the Capital city of Sikkim, a State of India. Only Indian nationals are allowed to visit Nathula Pass. A special visit permit is required which can be obtained in Gangtok. Visitors are advised to carry a photo identity and 2 photographs for the permit. Authorised travel agents organize the permit as well as the transportation. Do note that Nathula Pass is closed for visitors on Mondays and Tuesdays. Foreign nationals can travel only up to Tsongmo Lake (permit required) which is about 40 kms from Gangtok.
From the 2 days that I had on hand in Gangtok, I definitely wanted to use one of them to visit Nathula Pass. A Gangtok local very rightly mentioned that coming to Gangtok and not visiting Nathula Pass is akin going to Agra without visiting the Taj Mahal. Well, this could be a good marketing statement, but I tend to agree.
Trips to Nathula Pass begin at 8:30AM. Delaying beyond that is not advisable. The 70 km drive will take about 4 hours one way. Only SUVs can negotiate the hilly terrain. At the time of my visit the road works were on. In a few years the drive would be more safe and fast. Essentially the road is being built to facilitate trade between India and China. Till then the drive will send shivers down the spine of the faint hearted. The road is single lane and has no protection on the edge. One wrong move or slip will take you down a few thousand feet. Thankfully, the drivers are experienced and skilled. You should be in safe hands.
We were 2 couples. It made sense to book a taxi exclusively for our use for the Nathula trip. It cost us Rs 5800 that included the permit fees and a brief stop at Baba Harbhajan Singh shrine and Tsongmo Lake.
We were ready to leave at 8:30AM after stuffing ourselves with a high-calorie breakfast. Given the low temperatures up there, we were over-prepared with our clothing too. Unlike usual winter, this time round snowfall was delayed. We expected to have snow all along the route but that was not to be. The first check point was at 20 kms. Here, the driver got in a line and obtained the necessary permit to pass. The second checkpoint was only a few kms before Nathula Pass. After a 15-minute tea break enroute, we reached Nathula Pass at about 12 noon.
Though there is no restriction on the amount of time a visitor can spend at the border, it is advisable not to delay beyond 2:30PM. Weather can change rapidly, visibility can become extremely poor and the roads could get blocked. Be prepared to abandon the trip if the weather is not on your side. And there are no refunds.
In the Tibetan language, Nathu means Listening Ears and La means Pass. A gate with the words Listening Ears will welcome every visitor. To reach the actual border, visitors would need to climb about 100 steps. Though comfortable, the climb at that altitude can be really tiring. I could see many visitors gasping for breath.
Midway up, is the Nathula Memorial. The inscribed words “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today” are bound to moist even the most hardened eyes. After paying respects to the soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice, I climbed up the stairs to reach the border posts.
On the Indian side, a nice enclosure works as an exhibition centre that highlights details for the Nathula Pass. Visitors can get a certificate from the authorities to confirm the visit. There’s a small fee of Rs 50 for this service. Do keep a photograph handy for that will be pasted on the certificate.
Friendly Chinese soldiers from across the border made it a point to shake hands with Indian tourists. My wife even got a red balloon as a token of friendship from a Chinese soldier. It was all very good. Contrary to popular belief, visitors are free to take pictures. Soldiers from both sides will pose with you!
Nathula is one of the three trading border posts between China and India; the other two are Shipkila in Himachal Pradesh and Lipulekh in Uttarakhand. Sealed by India after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nathula was re-opened in 2006 following numerous bilateral trade agreements. The opening of the pass is expected to bolster the economy of the region and play a key role in the growing Sino-Indian trade. The opening also shortens the travel distance to important Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the region.
After spending about 45 minutes, we commenced our return journey but not before having a hot cup of coffee at a restaurant named ‘Restaurant 14000 Feet’. There’s a sledge hammer kept near a rock. Visitors are welcome to use the hammer (you have to be really strong) and break a piece of rock that can be carried back as a souvenir. I was successful in doing so.
Few kms down the road is the Baba Harbhajan Singh shrine. On October 4, 1968 sepoy Harbhajan Singh was escorting a mule caravan from his battalion headquarters in Tekula to Dengchukla. He fell into a fast flowing stream and drowned. Search for sepoy Harbhajan was made with no results. It was on the fifth day of the missing, his colleague Pritam Singh had a dream of Harbhajan Singh informing him of his tragic incident and his dead body being under the heap of snow. Harbhajan Singh desired to have a samadhi made after him. Pritam Singh ignored the dream but later when the body of sepoy Harbhajan Singh was found at the spot where Harbhajan Singh had informed, the army built a Samadhi near Chhokya Chho.
It is believed that Baba Harbhajan Singh warns the dangerous activities on the border through the dreams of fellow army men. Even Chinese army men believe to have seen a human figure doing patrolling in the night across the border. Baba Harbhajan Singh is today honoured by the rank of Honorary Captain and his samadhi reconstructed at the junction of Kupup Gnathang road and the pathway leading to Menmoichu Lake as part of the watershed memorial complex.
Over the years the shrine of Baba Harbhajan Singh has attracted scores of devotees from across all frontiers. Baba is respected and worshiped by every army man in Sikkim. They believe Baba would forecast accident in the valley much ahead of the happening. One of the rooms at the shrine is filled with water bottles. The followers believe that the water kept in the shrine would turn into holy water and cure every ailment.
After spending some time at the shrine and the visitor centre, we commenced our drive to our next breathtaking location – the Tsomgo Lake.
It is literally known as ‘source of the lake’ in Bhutia language. This serene lake is situated at an altitude of 12,000 feet. The lake is about 1 km long, oval in shape, 50 feet deep and is considered sacred by the local people. It is also a home of Brahminy ducks. It's cool, placid water harmonizes with the scenic beauty around. A small temple of Lord Siva is constructed on the lakeside. This placid lake remains frozen during the winter months up to mid May. Between May and August it is possible to see a variety of flowers in bloom, including the rhododendrons, blue and yellow poppies and irises. It is also an ideal habitat for red panda and various species of birds. Whilst there you may want to take a ride on the yak – a strong Himalayan animal. It will cost you about Rs 50, but will leave you with a different experience.
Just so you know many portions on the route are under Chinese observation. Warning signs are posted at such locations. I guess that means one should not do any activities that arouse suspicion. Of course, that did not deter me to get down from the vehicle, from time to time, to take pictures of the beautiful mountain range.
By the time we reached our hotel it was 5PM and dark. Since we had very little energy left, it was a good idea to laze around in the hotel for the rest of the evening. The next morning we would leave for Darjeeling – a picturesque hill station in the State of West Bengal.
Nathula Image Gallery Photo viewer
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