Mountains, mist and memories of a soldier-saint. A journey to Nathu La
Zumbo, our sturdy Gorkha driver, seemed to be in love with his voice. When he was not telling us what to see in Sikkim, he was reeling off Hindi songs, old ones mostly.
It was unusually warm in Gangtok that morning. Zumbo took no time speeding past the city limits and was soon climbing towards Nathu La pass. The roads became narrow, winding and, sometimes, slushy; at times it became part of the cavernous cliff edges. There was a pattern in Zumbo's singing. It became loud every time the road became a weathered ribbon.
Nathu La, one of the three trading posts between India and China, and which connects Sikkim with Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China, is just 54 km from Gangtok. But it's the treacherous climb, to over 14,150 ft, and the bone-chilling weather that makes the drive to Nathu La thrilling.
Throughout the winding road, we had for company boisterous waterfalls, heavy mist and snow-covered peaks in the distance. When we crossed the 15th Mile Sikkim Police checkpost, we stopped for a while. It was cold and a hot cup of tea did wonders. A few bends later I was snapped out of my reverie. “Saab, that's the Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary,” Zumbo said, pointing to a board on a slope. “This is home to the red panda and the blood pheasant (the state animal and bird respectively). And you have a whole lot of invaluable herbs and plants.” An icy breeze wafted in from the lowered car window, forcing me to pull it up instantly.
At certain parts the road was being widened. Workers, in that biting cold, were going about their work with zeal. “This is going to be a highway connecting Gangtok to Lhasa and beyond, to Mansarovar. It will be complete in three years time,” Zumbo told me. Apart from the occasional Army truck, a stray dog or porters with loads strapped to their backs, there was hardly any movement on the road.
The road kept winding until we stopped at Tsomgo Lake. The lake, at an altitude of 12,400 ft, freezes during the winter — even now it was placid, surrounded by mountains with traces of snow on them. “Saab, it is believed that lamas could forecast the future by studying the colour of the lake's water,” informed Zumbo, who led us to a row of small shops selling pullovers, shawls, thermals and a lot of ‘Made in China' stuff. They also rent out warm clothes.
The cold hits you with force at Nathu La. The temperature was nearing zero. There was snow all around and the steps were wet. It was grey at noon. Climbing even a few steps can be tough. At the Soldier Memorial we paused for a while and paid silent homage to the brave souls who had laid down their lives.
At Nathu La, India and China are separated by two buildings. The Tricolour fluttered proudly at the Indian Army post, which was separated from the Chinese building, prominent with red-gold pillars and a star, by a barbed wire fence — the border between the two nations.
On the other side we spotted a few soldiers of the Red Army, who were soon joined by a group of Chinese tourists. For the next few minutes the tourists on either side shook hands across the fence, posed for photographs, watched over by soldiers. You are allowed to stay here for about 30 minutes. Steaming samosas and tea from the canteen now prepared us for the descent. But before that, a few places awaited us: Kupup, the last Indian outpost here, and a temple dedicated to Baba Harbhajan Singh.
Kupup has a few houses and a small grocery shop. Here you have the Yak Golf Course that holds the Guinness record for being the world's highest golf course — at 13,025 ft. Affiliated to the Indian Golf Union, this is a challenging 18-hole course. During winter it becomes active as a ski centre where you can learn ice hockey, ice skating and skiing.
Baba Harbhajan Singh was a sepoy from the 23rd Punjab Regiment who disappeared during the 1962 Indo-China war. Both, Indian and Chinese soldiers believe that his spirit is still alive and patrols these parts. In fact, during every flag meeting, the Chinese keep a chair vacant for him. People say the Baba had appeared in the dream to his Commanding Officer and asked for a temple to be built in his honour. The temple and the bunker where he stayed, his belongings still intact, are situated between Nathu La and Jelep La Passes. There are many beliefs associated with the Baba; and on these tall mountains, cut off from civilisation, such beliefs keep people going.
The drive back was amidst thick fog: zero visibility. Zumbo had moved to the edge of his seat, peering through the white mass. Snow fell. The road became slushy. Zumbo's singing became loud. Inside the vehicle, hands were clasped in prayer. “Saab, I'm sure you cannot see anything in front of you. But I can because we eat a lot of green vegetables and use very little masala in our food,” Zumbo, sensing the tension, said with a loud laugh. Then, through the fog, we suddenly saw the lights of Gangtok.