Nathu La: Outposts and civilisations

All the way from Siliguri to Gangtok, lovely views of the Teesta River have competed with the Border Roads Organisation’s (BRO) articulation of its worldview, which is so unique that the river often loses. The highway is punctuated by speed-related warnings: ‘Faster brings disaster’, ‘Always alert, accident avert’, ‘Drive, don’t fly’. The first prize goes to: ‘It is not rally, enjoy the valley’. A little later, the rising hills and thickening forests bring forth intense outpourings: ‘First deserve then desire’ or ‘Life is a long journey, and the path is unknown’. But the next day, between Gangtok and Nathu La — as the heights get daunting, the forests fall silent and the chill enters the bones — the BRO’s need to be appreciated for its role in this geo-drama becomes urgent: ‘Ever wondered who defied death to make these roads?’ it asks.


And ‘BRO: Bringing peace through trade’. In parts amused and empathetic, at a point I’m brought to a halt. The boards near Nathu La go, ‘BRO: Flag bearers of prosperity & civilisation’. ‘Bringing remote people into mainstream’. What do these words mean? Am I, in the midst of this incredible beauty, standing in a place that needs civilisation brought to it? Is there something called ‘civilisation’, which is easily definable, of which these people and these places are not yet a part? Was it a case of civilisation when Nathu La throbbed with its own life as an offshoot of the legendary Silk Route, on which so many books are written and exhibitions put up, in the ‘mainstream’ cities of Delhi and Mumbai? Is it civilised now, when Indian and Chinese soldiers stand on both sides of a fence surrounded by mines, guns in hand, paid to be ready to kill each other when so ordered. Which ‘remote’ person is being ‘brought into the mainstream’, when a young man from Bihar spends months and months in a prefabricated shed, in the kind of snow and chill he has never seen before? Or for that matter, when tourists land up and ask, as I was asked, “Is there any entertainment up there?”

Nathu La (Photo by Giridhar)

Nathu La (Photo by Giridhar)


Reaching Nathu La Gangtok in the fresh April morning is all bathed and combed, ready to go to school, its eyes sparkling and a hint of dimples on its hill-child cheeks. Impeccably dressed women go off to work, monks hurry down to the bazaar, young men in shiny jackets amble along, making sure their hair is well gelled in place. But within some minutes of the 4-wheel drive taking off, the town is left behind and the more mature beauty of a wet temperate forest takes over. Slopes laden with oaks, pines and ash begin. The wind gets colder. April is a misty season and our driver-bhai sa’ab is unhappy that we cannot see the views with clarity. We try to convey to him what this quality of mist, this bell-like silence, and this silken air mean to people from Delhi (from the ‘mainstream’).


Sometimes the mist lifts to unveil deep and wide valleys, and very, very frequent waterfalls on the facing slopes. We zip up our jackets. Shiver a bit. Stop at the little settlement of Kyongnosla for tea, looking at the picture-postcard alpine village beside Rongchu stream, as unprepared travellers buy gloves and woollen socks. And settle down again in the car to crane our necks even higher as the mountains nearing the tree line start losing their greenery. The eye starts adjusting to this more thoughtful scenery. Frozen streams now define solid, shining trajectories down the mountains across from us. The fog shines silver. Greenery gives way to red or brown thorny shrubs. Soon, they all give way to snow. And, before we know it, the transcendentally serene Tsomgo Lake lies before us. It looks like high-altitude lakes do, pure glass, reflecting the human and the divine, something between this world and another. The mountains around the lake are still snow-covered but the water is not frozen. It mirrors its surroundings, with not a ripple to mar the image.


The lake is over a kilometre long and around 50 ft deep. There are plenty of shops on one side offering food, souvenirs, gumboots and warmth. There are yaks, wearing knitted decorations on their horns. When we return, frozen after hours in the snow, this is where we thaw out, gobbling steaming masala Maggi and black tea. But for the moment, we just hire the boots we’ll now need to wear anytime we get out of the car. The kingdom of snow is beginning. The road has such blinding snow on both sides, and such thick fog, that headlights are needed to make way through the phantasmagoria. It’s like losing touch with reality. But in a very sane way. We are too full of the knowledge that we are about to reach (i) a Himalayan pass at 14,140 ft (ii) a point on the Indo-China border (iii) a branch of the historic Silk Route between India and China.

Nathu La (Photo by Anuj Kumar Pradhan)

Nathu La (Photo by Anuj Kumar Pradhan)


The Silk Route lives! ‘Silk Route’ is a generic name given to different trade routes that emerged out of China and went on through Central Asia, parts of India, Arabia, to the Mediterranean. The trade on these routes sustained economies, brought societies in contact, transmitted cultures, and shaped civilisations. Traders, as well as pilgrims, religious seekers, soldiers, economic migrants, nomadic people, all kept these roads and cultures alive. These routes often branched off into a shorter journey, and often crisscrossed each other. One such route connected Lhasa to Bengal via Nathu La. Trade, in mainly tea and horses, thrived here. Chinese silk, Indian jewellery and spices were also traded. These traditional trade routes declined with long-distance sea trade becoming possible, but they didn’t die out. In the early 20th century, a good 80 per cent of the trade between India and China took place across Nathu La, finally coming to a halt with the hostilities in 1962. On July 7, 2006, the connection reopened after 44 years, as a diplomatic and economic initiative.


Six kilometres down from Nathu La, our car passes Sherathang; in April it’s just a collection of shivering prefab sheds trying to emerge from the snow. This is the new trade hub where customs, security, a post office, and a telecom centre have come up. (China’s counterpart is in Renqinggang, some 10 km from the Nathu La pass on the Chinese side.) Given the snow, trading can only take place across the pass between June 1 and September 30 each year. For the while, only local Sikkimese residents can trade and only in 44 listed commodities such as textiles, agricultural implements, tea, barley and rice. My favourite items in these bring back a whiff of the old trade: horses, sheep, yak hair, goatskin, wool and raw silk. The Nathu La effect The taxis — and even with the snow there are eight or ten of them — halt in the designated parking. Tourists emerge shivering and blinking, awed by the enormity of the snow around them. We can’t see a thing but start trudging along, unsure if there will ever be any harmony between our unfamiliar boots and the unaccustomed snow. A minute later, someone slips and almost falls. Then, literally, the ice breaks. Children giggle.


Now, we can hear the warming sounds of other tourists, who’ve already climbed up the humungous snow embankments on both sides of the path, and are calling out to the timid. The children outstrip us all. But the adults too fling themselves in with gusto. A little away from his family, a newlymarried young man encourages his shivering and giggling bride to have a sip from the rum quart he’s been hiding in the back pocket. All the cold will vanish, he says flirtatiously. Five minutes of trudging and we reach the stone walled passageway that lines the not-landmined part of the border. Steps lead up to the high point, and we are not even sure what we will find when we reach there. People are finding it tough to breathe. Someone wants to know if there’s a restroom up there. A man tells his sixyear- old son that he must appreciate how rare this experience is. A lady has just asked the Bihar regiment soldiers sprinkled around the place, about how cold it is.


She rushes to her teenager sons and says, “MINUS FIVE! Can you imagine if it had been ZERO?” She gets roundly ticked off by her embarrassed sons for not being savvy enough, as mothers all over the world do. Up at the top there’s a post, a chowki, and two soldiers on either side. We are at 14,140 ft. We can see a fence, and on the other side Tibet/ China. The thrill I get on just saying ‘Tibet’, and that thorny banal fence, do not match up at all. The Indian soldiers keep moving people on, saying that they can only stay, shake hands and click pictures for three minutes per group. And on both sides of the border, the very human, transboundary rituals continue: strangers smiling tentatively at each other; tourists awed by these heights but wanting to go to the loo; elder brothers threatening younger ones with snow… all of this, as the next tourist raises his camera to eye level and inhales to click….


While in Gangtok


Since you can only visit Nathu La for a few hours, charming Gangtok is your base. There are many ‘sightseeing’ spots like Ganesh Tok, Hanuman Tok and Tashi View Point — but to truly enjoy Sikkim’s capital, stick to walking. The scene changes dramatically the moment you head out of the main town. In April, the sheer misty freshness of the pine trees and wildflowers refreshes the soul, and after the rains, in October, you can see Kangchendzonga and the rest of the range in all its majestic glory. Enchey Monastery, literally ‘high strong place’, does live up to its name as it is situated on the upper slopes of the town. Spend enchanting mornings here listening to the hypnotic chants of the monks. A priceless delight is the Himalayan Zoological Park, spread across a hillside, with the animals kept in vast open-air enclosures. We saw our first snow leopard and red panda! The silence and pristine air are enchanting. The Institute of Tibetology is a must-visit. Home to priceless antiques, rare scriptures and gorgeous thangka paintings, the institute spearheads the study of the Tibetan language, culture and spiritual literature. Take a walk along The Ridge, and visit the market for curios.


For shopping, most people make a beeline for the Handicraft Cottage Emporium situated below Raj Bhavan. They stock the famous handcarved wood choktse tables, carpets, blankets, shawls and prayer rugs. Thangkas are another good buy. Rumtek Monastery, 24 km from Gangtok and Sikkim’s largest monastery, is located on a picturesque road across the Rangit River. It houses a school, an aviary and a special section where monks meditate in isolation. Close to 300 years old, Rumtek has some magnificent thangka paintings and is considered the most important seat for the Kagyupa sect of Buddhism. En route stop by at Gangtok’s famous orchid nursery, the Wayside Gardens and Nurseries, at 6th Mile Tadong.


By Juhi Saklani


Juhi Saklani believes in multiplying her soul by travelling under the guise of being a travel writer.