Nathu La – A journey to an ancient silk route

While I was gulping down some delicious Momos at Gangtok’s MG Road, my phone started ringing. With some discomfort I picked it up and someone on the other side of the line asked me whether I was interested for a visit to Nathu-la in a couple of days time. The call was from our hotel’s travel desk and my answer was an instant ‘Yes’. I mean, does it make any sense to deny such an opportunity to visit one of the most exciting places of Sikkim? Stupid I would be called if I do so. There were only 2 seats available and I had made no delays in booking the same for me and my Mishtu (my wife). One need to obtain necessary permit to visit Nathu La and our hotel’s travel desk helped me out with the same.

The D day, early morning, a quick breakfast, a ready cab and we started off. Nathu La, a distant dream for me since quite some time is finally going to be true. I have expected the journey to be a memorable one, and boy, it was. The weather wasn’t at its best as it was cloudy and our driver had warned us of rains ahead. The terrain was treacherous with broken roads and muddy patches. Sometimes it used to get scary as it gave a cliff-hanger feeling on narrow and muddy road with deep valleys by the side. Rains were playing hide and seek making the adventure more intense and the climate cooler. Now this called for a break. A tea break, much awaited one. And it was pleasing. A pinch of homemade local masala (spices) in a cup of hot tea with the chilly winds and sprinkles of rain in the air, the tea break on this journey could be easily rated as one best.

As we kept climbing up, the more rough the terrain became, and the more threatening the clouds grew. The scenic beauty kept our eyes glued on the window. Snow laden villages, mountain peaks, serene lakes surrounded by snowy mountains, population of Yaks, Buddhist prayer wheels, locals engaged in their day to day activities, and presence of Indian army kept pleasing our mind every moment. My camera kept on clicking these moments which made sure I don’t miss out on any of them. There were some sudden downpour at times and the vehicles moving in front of us were playing hide and seen in the rain clouds. A couple of Indian Army check-posts asked us to stop and checked our documents. This was a clear indication of the approaching destination. Then finally the cab stopped where hundreds of other cars were parked. This was it, our destination Nathu la, half covered by grey clouds as it seemed from a distance. And it was full of the substance we enjoy the most. The Snow. It was all around us; rather everywhere our eyes can reach, except the roads which the army snow cutters must have cleaned up for vehicle movement.

It was over 14000 feet above sea level, and the low oxygen level was evident from the dizziness we were having. Now it was up to us to reach out to the ultimate point of the international border between two Asian giants India and China. Some walks and climbs over the snow filled pathway finally took us to the army base. It was a climb upwards through a narrow path until here and the shoes were wet enough to send chills all along the body. Few more steps over the base camp and we were bang on the border. To my surprise, in this region the two countries were separated by mere few thorn wires, which a person willing can easily jump over. Try it at your own risk, as the personnel’s guarding the territory on the other side won’t think before acting against someone performing such stunts. Yes they were there, right in front of our eyes, few in their positions and few removing snow from their bunkers. A senior officer from the Chinese army was generous enough to smile at the Indian tourists and shake hands with me over the border wires. I wish I could capture the moment but carrying the camera here would have meant definite trouble. Yes, being an international border it’s pretty obvious that cameras and any kind of photography isn’t allowed in this spot, and one needs to respect this as a responsible Indian citizen.

We were feeling an adrenaline rush as we soaked ourselves in this territory standing along with the Indian army, keeping a close watch on the Chinese. Mishtu’s mobile beeped and it was a SMS which says “Welcome to China …” and contained information on international roaming pack from the Chinese mobile service provider. It felt like we have already crossed the border into China. The setting all around was adding up to the thrill level. An Indian army personnel asked the visitors not to waste time as it might rain any moment and getting wet in this region is the last thing one might ask for. So after spending a good 45 minutes at the border, we decided to descend back to our cab. Our fingers had started feeling numb due to the extremely cold weather, but the excitement of visiting such a dream destination was far from over We stopped by the canteen serving some hot noodle soup and it was an instant hit amongst the tourists in Nathu La. And why not, the coldness outside demanded something of real substance for our body and this soup provided exactly the same. It was hot, spicy and easily felt good in our bodies.  We bought a memento which was nothing but a visit certificate provided by the Indian army to the visitors. Once we gathered our warmth to some extent we continued to climb down the small terrain back. It was a risky affair as opposed to climbing because of the slipping snow all over the path. Anyways, we safely reached the ground and clicked some photographs from the safe photography zone. Our driver approached us as urged to move on as the clouds were getting scary with every passing moment. We still had 2 more destinations to cover, the Baba Harbhajan Singh shrine and the Tsongmo Lake. So we decided to make a move.

The next destination was the shrine of Late Baba Harbhajan Singh, whose spirit still protects the Indian army from anything bad. It was a perfect place to worship and get blessings of the devine baba. It had already started raining by then, and we kind of hurried through our short visit to the Baba Mandir (as also called). The next stop was Tsongmo lake. Though we had seen Tsongmo Lake from a distance during the morning ride to Nathu La, we had decided to stop by while returning. The lake was as picturesque as it can get. Surrounded by amazing snow laden mountains, the lake seemed to write its own story to amaze its visitors. We took a Yak ride which took our experience to an entire new level here. Amazed by the natural beauty and  by the Yak ride experience, we bid adieu to this part of Sikkim and started our journey back to Gangtok.

It got pretty chilly outside and the intermediate rains didn’t help at all. We both were feeling pretty cold and our fingers went numb. All this called for another break at a village, where we sat inside a small stall and had some hot Thupka and tea. This helped us gather some comfort and energy to complete our journey back. It was around 6.00 in the evening we reached Gangtok. This marked the end of an unforgettable experience of Nathu la. Memories floated in our mind for the rest of the time and it still does. What an experience, what a journey and what amazing destinations. Sikkim and Nathu la had made a permanent mark on our minds, leaving behind some tales to share. Check out the photographs to get a feel for yourself :