Saturday, November 10, 2012

Sikkim: Travel to Nathula Pass, a spine-chilling experience

Nathula, 55 kms from Gangtok, is a mountain pass through the Himalayas connecting India and China. It is at an altitude of 14000 ft above sea level.
To go to Nathula, one needs a permit from the Indian government. It is open to Indian citizens only on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. We were asked to submit two passport size photos and two photo ID proofs (our tour operator insisted on our passports towards ID proof).
We were there just two days after the roads were thrown open after a major landslide in September which had killed four people.

The road after the landslide

And the delayed monsoons ensured that the roads, if any, were full of mud and slush.

A stretch of the slippery road

What was truly a spine-chilling experience was traveling on these roads or non-existent roads. The roads become very narrow in places, sometimes just as much as the width of the vehicle that you are traveling in!  The waterfalls which exist everywhere in Sikkim wash away the roads. Where there is a strong waterfall, it is not possible to have a road, and your vehicle actually rides over the stones to travel across. All the slush on the roads jeopardize your travel further, as you never know when the vehicle could simply slide 14000 ft to the valley below. Though there is lovely scenery and nature filled with trees, mountains and waterfalls all around, you are rudely brought back to the real world with all the rocking and rolling of the car. Most of the time you sit through the journey praying and hoping you make it through. At one place, we waited quite some time for the crane to clear away huge boulders from the route which had come rolling down due to landslide. People are known to be stranded overnight for this very reason. And while returning, unless you manage to climb down before 5 pm, the diminishing visibility only makes things worse. Not for the faint-hearted, this experience!

The road can get as narrow as this
Visiting in winters is ruled out as temperatures can drop to below minus degrees. Visiting in the rainy season is ruled out as heavy rainfalls cause massive landslides. So that leaves a narrow window for visits. While we were there in October-mid, we were shivering from cold. It is necessary to wear shoes, and cover yourself head to toe to save yourself from the biting cold.We also saw some ice falling around us...not snow...just some random pieces of ice here and there.
The vehicle drops you at the bottom of the steps leading to the border and it is a steep climb up around 50-60 steps. Not an easy climb, especially due to lack of oxygen at that altitude.
After you catch your breath, it is time to get breathless again as you open your eyes to what you see around you: The Indo-China border and the beautiful mountain ranges all around you. Is this Yash Chopra's Switzerland, you wonder?
Patriotic feeling surges through you when you see the Indian soldiers guarding the border. And a quiet, reverent moment when you see the Indian War Memorial with names of all martyrs.
 The Chinese soldiers are busy clicking our photos and we theirs. They helpfully pose for us, with us. It is heart-warming to see their friendly nature. I was told that the Indian soldiers do the same when the Chinese visit the border, which is three hours before us as their time is ahead of us. Perhaps, this is the only international border which doesn't have a no-man's land.

And...the China post

Nathula Pass is a must-see.