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Of primulas and the PLA

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Magical carpet: More enchanting than the Valley of Flowers. Photo: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer
Magical carpet: More enchanting than the Valley of Flowers. Photo: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

HUGH AND COLLEEN GANTZER

China on one side and India on the other. An unforgettable encounter at Natula in Sikkim.

IN Delhi they warned us: 'Be careful: it'll be freezing cold!' And: 'The road's a writhing snake: it's dangerous.' And finally: 'It's more than twice the height of your cottage in the Himalayas! You'll gasp for oxygen! Are you mad?' But then some Delhi folk often expostulate in italics and we did want to have an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with the gentlemen of the Peoples' Liberation Army. So, as our Army friends might have put it, we pressed on regardless.In Gangtok, which is a mere 5,000 feet or so above sea level - they still count in feet in Sikkim - we had our sheaf of permits signed, sealed, stamped and delivered to us. We're glad we did: at every second hiccough on the road there was a check-post manned either by the Sikkim Police or the Army. That was reassuring. So were road markers that commemorated the many places one regiment had been based in, all round the world; sign-boards proclaiming the many successes of the Border Roads Organisation in keeping this high road open 24x7; and a message that trumpeted proudly: When the Going Gets Tough, the Gurkhas get going.

Poignant memorials

And the going must be tough. For though we've made light of it, this mountain road has consumed many lives in its creation. We crawled past growling bulldozers clearing away landslides, labourers tarring freshly resurfaced stretches wafting the smell of hot tar acrid in the sharp wind, poignant little memorials to workers from all over India who would never see their warm, green, plains again. The price of keeping India free is being paid, every day, in the currency of ordinary Indian lives lost in these inhospitable heights.We had now risen to 12,400 feet and stopped for a breather at Tsomgo Lake. It stretched like hammered steel between misted mountains. There were tea stalls and souvenir shacks and phlegmatic black and white yaks waiting to carry tourists, in their bovine plodding gait, around the lake. Our breaths misting in the chill air, we boarded our 4x4 and drove on higher and still higher.Suddenly, unexpectedly, the mist cleared and we found ourselves in a wonderland of fissured blue-grey boulders, magical carpets of primulas and a profusion of other wild flowers. We, in Uttaranchal, are proud of our Valley of Flowers but here it wasn't just one valley it was entire hillsides after hillsides after hillsides as if some immortal gardener had gone berserk and spilt his iridescent palette of floral colours across these high mountains. We have marvelled at the famed wild flowers of the Swiss Alps but they paled into insignificance when compared to our northeastern Himalayas in early autumn. If we had seen nothing else, this would have more than justified our trip to the frontier pass of Natula. But the climax of our trip still lay ahead. Now, at these tense heights, the 63rd Mountain Brigade took us under their wing. Their Medical Officer was Capt. Abha Kumari Sharma from Patna; their Second-in-Command was Col. T.K. Murari from Tamil Nadu, and their Brigadier was the tall, slim Ranvir Singh from Himachal who had more star quality than even Sri H. Roshan!We climbed to the barren, cold, mountains of Natula. We were now at 14,500 ft. Escorted by Army photographer Sarabjit Singh and his digital camera - because security regulations prohibited us from taking photographs here - we came to a signboard mounted in front of a barbed-wire fence. It said:Natula: Significance1. A 563 km long historic trade route (popularly known as Old Silk Route) between Sikkim and Tibet passes through Natula.2. In November 1956 H.H. Dalai Lama came to attend 2500-year Buddha Jayanti celebrations in India and returned to Lhasa in February 1957 through this pass.3. On September 1 1958, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, accompanied by Smt. Indira Gandhi went to Bhutan through this pass via Chumbi Valley. He was received by the Chinese Ambassador at Natula Pass.4. Here two great armies of the world are deployed very close to each other.5. An international mail exchange between India and China takes place at this location twice a week. On Sunday it is held on our side and on Thursday it is held on the Chinese side. We walked past the signboard, up to the barbed wire fence. Beyond the framed red flag of the Peoples' Republic of China stretched Tibet, the Chumbi Valley and Bhutan. To our left, tucked into the rocks of Natula, were the Chinese bunkers. At their base was the squat, red-roofed building housing the headquarters of the local unit of the PLA.Then, through the few strands of the barbed wire fence, we had an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with a charming, smiling, Chinese soldier. Sadly, we didn't shake his hand.

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Fact file

Gangtok to Nathula 56 km by road.

Cost by maxi cab-jeep: Rs.1,826.

Nathula is open only for Indian Nationals on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Permits are required.

Accommodation in Gangtok covers a range to suit all budgets. A selection:

Nor-Khill: Tel:03592-205637 E-mail:norkhill@elginhotels.com

Himalayan Heights Hotel: Tel:03592-221567. E-mail:info@himalayanheightshotel.com;

Hotel Tashi Delek: Tel:03592-202991. E-mail:slg_htdelek@sancharnet.in

For More Information Contact: Sikkim Tourism, Gangtok. Ph: 03592-221634 Fax: 03592- 225647


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