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An Illusory Gateway to a Fabled Land

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/04/12; April 12, 2002.]


GANGTOK: 'Lhasa - 480 km' proclaims a signpost next to the road. It suddenly hits you that you are on the historic trade route that once linked India to Tibet.

But if history does not excite you, there are plenty of other things going for Nathula Pass. Besides the breathtaking views, the pass gives you the rare opportunity to come within handshaking distance of the Chinese army.

Since Nathula Pass was opened to tourists in September 1999, it has been a major draw. Four days a week, the Indian Army permits a maximum of 20 vehicles from Gangtok to travel to Nathula Pass. On an average, 800 visitors, including plenty of honeymooning couples, are making the three-hour trip every week to the windswept pass.

At well above 14,000 feet and battered by icy winds, Nathula Pass is not a hospitable place. "The temperature is five degrees below zero. It will get worse at night," informs Paramjit Singh, of the Sikh Light Infantry, one of the many soldiers manning the border. It is around 11.30 am in March and already the wind is howling through the barren mountains and breathing is difficult.

Due to the icy conditions, or maybe a prolonged period of peace, there is a certain casualness about the border. No mortars or guns pointed at the other side.

Only a roll of barbed wire in the snow marks the border between India and Tibet. But when a Bengali tour-ist asks what would happen if he stepped across the wire, a soldier replies casually, "They will shoot you."

Just then a Chinese soldiers peers out of his post from across the border. There is a muted cheer from the assembled crowd. But he disappears as suddenly as he appeared, leaving the tourists disappointed. However, there is regular contact between the Indian and Chinese. Twice a week there is an exchange of mail near the border. Representatives of the two armies also meet regularly.

Nathula Pass has over the years been a silent witness to history. In the 50s, Jawaharlal Nehru, with a young Indira in tow, travelled on muleback to Bhutan through Nathula and across the Chumbi valley in Tibet. The present Dalai Lama had crossed the pass in 1956 to attend the 2500th Buddha Jayanti celebrations in India. All that abruptly changed with the Chinese aggression in 1962 and the pass was sealed.

Now Nathula stands as an illusory gateway to a fabled land.

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