Visiting the Chinese Border itself generates the excitement - what if it is accompanied by a snow-field, sacred Lake, and a yak ride!!
We were in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, as part of our North-East India tour and had a couple of days there towards the end of the tour. We had planned a day-long excursion to the Indo-Chinese border - Nathula Pass and had two days as a back-up in case of issues with permits. We, however, managed to accomplish the trip on the primary day itself - May 12th, 2017. The itinerary of the day included Tsomgo Lake, Baba Mandir, and Nathula Pass - all exciting destinations we were looking forward to.
A video blog takes your through the Nathula Pass and Tsomgo Lake
While it is easy to visit the lake and the Mandir, access to Nathula Pass itself is highly restricted by the armed forces. A limited number of passes are issued daily based on logistics and weather considerations. The passes are issued based on a lottery to registered tour operators based on weekly turns. The tour operators, in turn, sell off some passes in open market at a premium. Our tour operator informed us in the morning that he had managed to get hold of the passes for us - of course for a good moolah. We were still happy to finally have the opportunity. We left the hotel at about 8 in the morning as our car arrived in the hotel lobby. The journey began on a happy note with a good breakfast at the hotel and steaming coffee in the balcony - enjoying morning sun rising through the valleys. The same driver who accompanied us through the journey across North Sikkim - Amit - was there to pick us. We picked speed as we headed outside the city owing to good road infrastructure in this part of the state. After about 15 kilometers of a drive, we reached the 3rd Mile Check post - the first of many police picket points where tourists are validated and accounted for. The protocol at this check post is pretty elaborate and hence takes a bit of time to clear each car. This leads to a sort of bottleneck and we had to wait for about half an hour before our turn came up.
We traveled for another hour on the curvy roads surrounded by nature and its offerings and reached the second checkpoint. There is a small market that has come up around this checkpoint and we used this as a break. We enjoyed tea and snacks while waiting to clear formalities and grasped the beauty spread all around. Soon we were again in the car climbing up towards our destination. At about noon, we reached the final check post of the Army where we needed to change vehicles temporarily. Army encourages tourists to share vehicles for the last mile connectivity as the parking space at the top is a luxury which comes at a premium. We got a ride on a Bolero which had a group of college students from BITS Ranchi. It was a fun group of young students and we had good discussion throughout the route. This was also the point on the route where the snow fields joined us to give the company. A vast expanse of hills and valleys covered in snow surrounded us as we continued our ascent towards the destination. In another half an hour we were there and deboarded the vehicle. The vehicles drop tourists just below the final approach, that has to be covered on foot, and then use the parking some distance downhill.
|Snow Snow All Around - At Nathula Pass|
|There is Chinese Territory Yards Behind Us|
The heavy presence of armed personnel was an indicator of the strategic importance of the place and security needs that mandated close surveillance of tourists. This is one of the few trade routes to China and one of the four Border Personnel Meeting points for the Indian and Chinese armies. While the army personnel may seem stern and assertive, they are quite helpful in nature. We began climbing on the snow mountain along the path marked out for tourists. The climb was tough as the snow had set into ice and was slippery enough to take anyone for a ride. We continued on the path cautiously – slow and steady – and after about 15 minutes of a climb, reached the mid-point of sorts. ITBP has set up a small cafeteria cum resting lounge for tourists to catch their breath for a while. We decided to continue to the end and visit the café on way back. It was another 10 minutes of the hike which led us to the last point of Indian territory on this front.
The International Border was marked with barbed wires running along the length and we were constantly advised by officers there to stay away from them. The strictness was overwhelming and their reasoning justified – we have fought wars with this country and at times still face tense stand-offs. Read more about our relations with China in the article - A Story of Over One-Third of the World - Indo-China Relationship. While we were there for fun, the army was there for a purpose and that takes priority over all our fun. We were given a brief overview of the place and its strategic importance. We could also see the Chinese Border Outpost built right by the border – it was indeed a huge building to be an outpost. We also saw a large gate across the border with a road through. This was the road route to China and was used for trade and transport. It is through this gate that the Kailash Mansarovar tourists pass through while on their journey on the pilgrimage. We saw a couple from the other side of the border visiting the point too. They had much lesser restrictions and tourists on that side were allowed to take pictures. Many tourists on our side even shook hands with their Chinese counterparts and we all happily took pictures. We began our hike back in about 15-20 minutes and stopped at the café for a while. We also picked certificates issued by the Army for tourists visiting the spot at a nominal fee. The Army does not allow any photography at the top and hence we had to be content with taking pictures in the snow around the parking area. We were in our car by about 2 and began our journey towards other places on the itinerary.
|Faith Triumphs Logic - Baba Harbhajan Mandir|
Next on the itinerary was the Baba Harbhajan Mandir and we were right in front of it by 2:30 PM. There is an interesting story attached to this place and makes one wonder how strong faith can be. The temple is built in memory of Late Sepoy Harbhajan Singh enrolled into the Punjab Regiment. Serving with his unit in Sikkim in 1968, he passed away on October 4 that year while escorting a mule column from Tuku La to Dongchui La. He is believed to be the guardian of Nathula Pass and everyone guarding it. Units of the Indian Army that are posted in the region, seek Baba’s blessing with various plates dedicated to him lining the shrine’s walls. They also believe that Baba will warn them of an impending attack, days in advance. Army issued a paycheck in his name and promoted him as per the protocols until he retired at a time he would have, had he been serving. He is revered not only among Indian soldiers but even Chinese side has a respect for him. It is this respect which shows in the border meetings between two countries – where both sides leave a chair empty in a show of gratitude. Army has definitely built a magnificent shrine in his memory and maintains it well. We paid our homage to the departed soul and continued our trip.
It took us about half an hour to reach Tsomgo Lake, our last spot for the day. Tsomgo Lake or Changu Lake is a glacial lake in the East Sikkim region at an altitude of nearly 12400 feet (~3800 meters). The road to Nathu La passes the lake on the north side. The lake derives its water from the melting snow on the mountains around and remains frozen through the winters. The lake is considered sacred by the local people a small temple of Lord Siva is constructed on the lakeside. During the olden days, lamas used to study the color of the water of the lake and forecast the future. If the waters of the Tsomgo lake had a dark tinge, it foreshadowed a period of difficult time and unrest in the region. We took a short ride on Yak – an animal associated with this region. We spent in all an hour at the spot during which we enjoyed the scenery, walked through the fleece market set up around the place and enjoyed fresh noodles in one of the huts.
|The Serene Tsomgo Lake|
|Riding the Yak - It's Different and Fun !!|
We returned to our hotel by about five in the evening - exhausted yet enlightened !!
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