20th March 2016, Sunday…Day (30) Gangtok-Nathula-Gangtok 121 km
Situated at a height of 14140 MSL in East Sikkim district, Nathula, meaning ‘Listening Ears Pass’, is a mountain pass on Indo-China border and an offshoot of ancient silk route.
It is one of the three open trading border posts between China and India, the others being Shipkila (HP) and Lipulekh Pass (UK). The pass was sealed by India after the 1962 war with China and reopened in 2006.
It is also one of the four officially agreed BPM (Border Personnel Meeting) points between the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army of China, the other three are Chushul (Ladakh), Bumla (Arunachal Pradesh) and Lipulekh Pass (UK).
I had booked a seat in a shared cab for visiting Nathula that day. Like North Sikkim and Gurudongmar Lake, private vehicles are not permitted by the Home Department of Sikkim and one has to travel in an authorised cab after obtaining inner line permit through an authorised travel agent. Foreigners are not allowed to visit the pass.
Immediately after getting up and a nice sleep inside the car, ‘home on wheels’, drove to Vajra Parking, which to me was far more safer for day car parking than any any other place. Freshened up at public utilities, had tea from Roshan, requested Roshan and Manoj to take care of my Lalpari in my absence and was off to Nathula.
We began from Vajra Taxi Stand at 9.30am morning. Besides me there were eight other passengers in the cab, three couples, two children and two boys, all from neighbouring West Bengal.
They were as dry as the one’s I had during Gurudongmar Lake trip. No one uttered any word to one another during the whole trip, not even responded to the occasional smile, can’t say exactly why so, as normally I do not travel in a group.
Tenzing, the driver of our cab, was though a very nice chap, in total contrast to the one we had to bear with for two nights and three days during our Gurudongmar Lake trip. He was ever so smiling, polite and told us to ask for anything during the trip.
After getting our permits checked at 3rd Mile check post, we drove for about an hour and took a breakfast cum tea cum smoking break at a nice place which had many eating joints besides shops renting gum shoes and woolen clothing.
It was mid March and there was still lot of snow all around, especially after Tsomgo Lake. Otherwise also it was misty and cloudy all the way, did not see the Sun whole of the day. The whole circuit is very touristy and a large number of cabs carrying tourists were racing along the route.
Tsomgo Lake, also known as Changu Lake, is situated at an elevation of 12,313 ft MSL forty kilometers from Gangtok on the way to Nathula. The lake remains frozen during the winters and is held in great reverence by the local Sikkimese people.
We did not stop at Tsomgo lake and continued driving towards Nathula. After Tsomgo, the road and the surroundings became barren and buried under thick snow. Large fields of snow and mist was spread all over. The visibility became very low.
Soon we arrived at a place where large number of cabs were already parked. Tenzing parked the cab on a side and told all of us to walk a small snowy steep path to Nathula, which was hardly visible in thick blanket of mist. It was 12pm midday.
The path was small, steep, snow laden and very slippery. The army had fixed a rope all along the path to facilitate tourist traffic. A large number of excited tourists were walking the path in gay abandon.
We reached the army post after about 15 minutes and for the first time in my life I was standing so close to Indo-China border. Although nobody is allowed at actual LOC but we could see movement of Chinese army on the other side of the border. Pictures and videos are not allowed at the place and hence no pictures and videos in the post.
The border was manned by Dogra regiment. The soldiers belonging to Punjab, Himachal and J&K at the post met me with warmth as perhaps I was the only North Indian in the crowd. After enjoying a hot cup of tea and momos, we returned back to where our cab was parked.
After having a wonderful time at snowbound misty Nathula, we drove to Baba Harbhajan Singh Shrine, nine kilometers towards the east of Nathula. The Shrine has been built by Indian Army in reverence to the memory of Major Harbhajan Singh, who died in 1968 near Nathula.
He was accorded the status of Saint by believers who refer to him as the Baba, a Saintly figure as it is believed that his spirit protects every soldier in the inhospitable high altitude terrain.
Harbhajan Singh’s early death at the age of 22 is the subject of legend and religious veneration, which has become popular folklore among Indian Army jawans. The official version of his death is that he was a victim of battle at Nathu La. He was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra medal for his bravery and martyrdom.
According to a legend, Harbhajan Singh drowned in a glacier while leading a column of mules carrying supplies to a remote outpost, his remains were found after a three-day search and his body was subsequently cremated with full military honors.
The legend further claims that it was Harbhajan Singh himself who helped the search party find his body. Still later, through a dream, he instructed one of his colleagues to build and maintain a shrine in his memory.
It is believed that in the event of a war, Baba would warn the Indian soldiers of any impending attack at least three days in advance. During the flag meetings between the two Nations, the Chinese even set a chair aside to honor Baba Harbhajan Singh.
It felt wonderful to witness a 22 years young martyr from Punjab being revered by people of all faiths including the Chinese. For me personally it was a proud moment as Baba Harbhajan Singh has done his schooling from the same town, Patti in Punjab, where I did my schooling too. He did in 1955 and I in 1979.
After having nostalgic time at Baba Harbhajan Singh Shrine we began our return journey and took a break at Tsomgo Lake. Tsomgo seemed to be a very popular tourist halt as a number of yaks had lined up along with traditional dress on rent. Soon the road was filled with people enjoying yak ride and getting photographed in traditional dress.
After enjoying yak ride and getting photographed at Tsomgo Lake in traditional dress, we drove back and reached Gangtok at 5pm. It was still overcast and drizzling. I walked down to MG Road and met Zeeshan, an avid traveller from Kanpur, his wife and daughter, who were on their first driving trip to Sikkim.
It was my 8th and last night in Gangtok. I bid farewell to Roshan and Manoj, rang up Karma Tenzing for all his help and support and drove up the Kazi Road, to the place where I had landed for the first night in Gangtok.
Parked the car and walked down to MG Road and had yet another fabulous evening. MG Road is such a happening place, so lively and colourful, it is hard to get enough of it, it has always something or the other to give.
After having nice time at MG Road, enjoying few drinks and fabulous dinner, I walked back on a beautiful cool and calm Kazi road to the place where my Lalpari, my home on wheels was parked.
Slipped inside the car, pulled the covers over, locked it from inside, changed the clothes and slipped inside the sleeping for the last time at Gangtok and slept like a baby…….!!!