Breaking News
Saturday, May 14, 2011

Info Post
(Published in Travel Mail, Mail Today, dated 15 May 2011, retrieved from

(Photos Copyright: Nandini Krishnan. Unauthorised reproduction of these images is prohibited.)

“Why we not sit there?” I try my luck with the reticent Sonam, who’s been sulking by the side of his Qualis as eight impatient customers cross-question him at the taxi stand in Gangtok.

“Man-wife,” he holds up four fingers.

“Four man-four wife, one man-four wife, two man-two wife?”
Sonam holds up one finger – his index, if you must know – and walks away, as I sigh and return to the coop. Well, nine of us – including a four-year-old, whose seat doesn’t count – have been waiting for half an hour, packed tight as sardines into two rows, while the empty double-seat by the driver’s gets bigger and bigger. We can’t leave because Sonam has the tourist permits of the husband-wife combination that’s been delaying us.
“We’ve been lucky,” my mother, the eternal optimist, suggests, to the glares of her three children and one husband. She’s right, though. The staff at our hotel had managed to get us permits to visit Nathu La Pass two minutes before the office closed, using a combination of driver’s licences, passports, exam hall tickets and IT Park access cards.
Thankfully, a young-couple, wearing enough sindoor, bangles and tilak between them to establish they’re on their honeymoon, shows up right then, and gets screamed at and bulldozed into being separated and squeezing up, so that the level of discomfort is evenly distributed.
Sonam swears at his cigarette in a mixture of English, Bengali, Nepali, Hindi and Sikkimese, before stamping it out and telling us, “we aadh-ganta late!”
We’ve been warned already that landslides could occur anywhere along the 51-kilometre journey, even in summer, that we’re lucky to have visited before and after winter, and that a lot of repair work is going on around the ‘sinking zones’.
As we begin to climb up the steep slope, even the now-disgruntled honeymooning couple is forced to cheer up. 

The views unfold like a series of award-winning three-dimensional photographs, except that they’re framed through the less-than-sparkling-clean windows of the Qualis. Deciding to explore the fourth dimension, I lower my window, and Sonam screams, “no, no! Presser!” Fuming, he raises the window, and activates the child lock. There’s no point in trying to argue that the drop in air pressure at 6000 feet won’t kill you.

We catch a glimpse of yaks at Tsomgo lake, where Sonam refuses to stop on the way up – apparently, vehicles may be blocked any time on the journey to Nathu La – and tells us we can go to the waterfalls near Baba Mandir on the way down. 

I nearly keel over when I spot four men around a campfire on a precipice, where repairs are being made to the roads. One of them has his legs dangling over the cliff-face. Friendly jawans at outposts of the Border Roads Organisation wave as Sonam zooms by.

Despite the slope getting steeper than forty-five degrees as we climb up, the road is smoother than the one winding up from Baghdogra to Darjeeling. It’s incredible, especially when you remember the pass was closed for forty-four years following the Sino-Indian War.
Incidentally, the day of its re-opening – July 6, 2006 – was the Dalai Lama’s 71st birthday.
As we near the pass, we spot ‘Mera Bharat Mahan, Hum Hi Jitenge’ printed in huge letters on the rock-faces around the valley. 

At one point, we come close enough to one of the signs to see that the letters have been made by arrangements of white boulders. Clearly, the soldiers working out here don’t spend their spare time playing cards.

We finally arrive at the colourful doorway with ‘Nathu La’ painted on top. A souvenir shop, a memorial to the martyrs of 1962, a helipad, a watch-post – the walls of which are painted with scenes from India that wouldn’t be out of place in an EVS textbook – and a sign reading ‘Break a piece of this historic Natula rock and carry it with you – Free of Cost!’ are spread across the plateau. 

wall, which most tourists believe readily to be the Great Wall of China, blocks access to the Chumbi Valley of the Tibetan Plateau.

Indian and Chinese soldiers, who communicate by sign language with each other, pose readily for pictures. 

Our honeymooners try to clamber across to the Chinese soldiers, one of whom politely stops them from violating the national boundary. Another obliges an Indian baby as its parents document their infant’s first illegal emigration.

After collecting a certificate for reaching 14,000 feet, we begin the downward spiral. 

Our next stopover is the Baba Mandir – a shrine built by soldiers of the Indian Army to Captain (posthumously Major) Harbhajan Singh, who is believed to safeguard and grant visions of himself to them. Nearby is his camp bed, along with polished boots and a laid-out uniform. A soldier tells us with a smile that the sheets are found crumpled every morning, sending my brothers scurrying towards the waterfall.

A little further down, we do stop at Tsomgo, the highest lake – in India, in Asia, in the world, depending on whom you talk to – at 12,400 feet, where we munch on hot momos and find out that the owners of the yaks speak Gujarati, Marathi, Malayalam and Tamil in addition to most of the languages of the North-East.
When we’re finally offloaded at the taxi stand in Gangtok, Sonam cracks a smile for the first time, and lights up in the loaming. The gesture makes one think about the poignancy of jawans building and guarding roads, thousands of miles from their own homes, simply because no one can afford to trust a neighbour.

(Image Copyright: Mail Today. Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)
From Gangtok, there are Sikkimese taxies that ply to Nathula. One cannot use private transport or taxis hired from other states. You can choose to either hire a taxi for the family (which will set you back by about Rs. 10,000), or fight for space in a shared taxi (approximately Rs. 1000 a head – and you might lose yours).
You will need a special permit, which must be procured the day before you make the journey – travel agents and hotel staff will assist you. Make sure you take photo identification.


Post a Comment