What would you say, if I ask you about your plans of action on the first day of a new year..?? What people generally do on a new year day. Hanging out for a picnic with friends and family, eating out, partying till they get exhausted, visiting temples, churches, going on beaches, long drives bla bla bla.. Have you ever thought of spending your first day of a new year above snowline, at an altitude of 14,400 ft above sea level. Yeah.. I dreamt and I did. Every bit of moment of that particular day is still fresh in my memory.
We were on a vacation trip to north east in the December of 2014 (read more about my experiences of Darjeeling, Lamahatta, paragliding and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway). What a wonderful trip that was. On the last day of 2014, we were in Gangtok which is the capital of Sikkim (the second smallest state of India after Goa). It is a small but very beautiful, neat and clean and disciplined city. By the time we reached Gangtok from Kalimpong (West Bengal), the evening was about to arrive. We were staying there in hotel The Delisso Abode which is a very good hotel near High Court of Sikkim.
The famous MG Marg was just around 1 km from our hotel. MG Marg (‘Marg’ means road in Hindi language) is the city’s tourists’ hot-spot, a very well maintained, pedestrian only market and also a smoking, spitting and litter free zone. It is a ‘must visit’ because without it your visit to Gangtok remains really incomplete. Locals and tourists take leisure stroll or just sit and relax on one of the many benches. The road was lined up with glittering shops, restaurants, cafes & bars on both sides. Many tourists took tables on the roadside restaurant and were watching the activities on the street. It was like a carnival like atmosphere out there, in December end. All the buildings on the MG Marg were painted green which was giving them a fresh look. You can buy here souvenirs, gifts, clothings, handicraft items, shoes, darjeeling tea. We visited this place daily in our three day long stint, in spite of being so much tired after day long travelling to different places. Just have a glance over the pictures of this beautiful market.
In my opinion, if you want to know in detail, the cuisines, customs, eating habits, culture, history and so many other things pertaining to the people, place or country you visit, you should walk a lot on foot, mix with people, talk a lot to your local drivers, eat at local eating joints (ofcourse hygine must be a priority), visit their vegetable marts, shop from local market rather than big fancy showrooms etc. We often do this kind of activities while on a trip. This gives us a insight to the people and places and I think tourism is all about this.
Near Gangtok, Nathula is a spellbinding destination! Nathu means “listening ears” and La means “pass” in Tibetan. In hotel, I came to know that Nathula pass and one nearby Baba Mandir can be visisted by Indians only and that too requires seperate permits due to it’s proximity to the sensitive Sino-Indian Border (Indo-China Border). The visitors can get the permit by applying to the Tourism and Civil Aviation Department through a registered and recognised Travel Agency. We had made up our minds to greet the new year in some unusual fashion. So, we decided and asked the manager of the hotel to make necessary arrangements and permit etc. for the excursion.
We got up early to witness the beautiful morning of the Gangtok, and left the hotel by 8’o clock. Although the Nathula border is only about 50 km from Gangtok at an altitude of 14450 ft but thanks to the demanding driving conditions, it took us more than 3 hrs to reach there. A trip from Gangtok to Nathula Pass is a daylong affair. At an army checkpoint enroute, our driver took all the permits to the check post and got it cleared.
Nathula Pass was a major corridor of passage between India and Tibet. Owing to Indo-China war in 1962, it was closed and was resumed only after 44 years in July 2006, after India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s China visit in 2003 and multiple rounds of bilateral talks between the two countries. Nathula Pass was part of the ancient Silk Route which connected India and Tibet and still today it the primary route from India to sacred Mansarovar Lake in Tibbet. The road to Nathula passes through the sacred Tsomgo lake, which is one of the highest motorable roads in the world. Tourists are allowed to go close to the international border from where you can see Chinese soldiers on the other side of the barbed wire.
Nathula is open for Indian nationals on weekdays except Monday and Tuesday. Foreign nationals are not allowed to visit Nathula. One can find ATM facility here which makes it the world’s highest Automated Teller Machine (ATM).
While returning from the pass, we went to Baba Harbhajan Singh mandir. Harbhajan Singh was a soldier of Indian Army and this temple was built in his memory after his strange disappearance near Nathula in 1968. Legends say that the soldiers posted here still believe that Baba Harbhajan Singh’s spirit protects them in this difficult territory while guarding the Indian borders. Pressed uniform and polished shoes of Harbhajan Singh are still kept within the main temple.
About 17 kilometres before the Nathula Pass, Tsomgo Lake, also known as Changu Lake is a glacial lake in Sikkim and located at an altitude of 12,310 feet. The name Tsomgo means ‘Source of water’. It is located at a distance of 40 kms from Gangtok on the route known as Jawaharlal Nehru Road which leads to Nathula Pass.
The excursion to Nathula Pass is indeed a unique adventure and experience, and no words can do justice to something that only can be experienced.
Some Important Points:
- Get yourself physically examined before starting to Nathula.
- Only Indian nationals are allowed to visit Nathula Pass and Baba Mandir.
- Foreign nationals are not allowed to visit Nathula.
- These places remain closed on Monday and Tuesday.
- You have to procure seperate permits for each place in advance.
- Permits can be applied at Tourism and Civil Aviation Department, Sikim through a registered and recognised Travel Agency.
- It requires two copies of passport sized photograph and a photocopy of ID with address proof (PAN card not accepted) and a fee of 200/- INR.
- You may feel Acute Mountain Sickness or Altitude sickness and hence may feel difficulty in breathing because of thin air and low oxygen in atmosphere. If you feel any such difficulty, contact immidiately to Indian Army personnels or descent immidiately. It is also not advisable place for children below 5 years of age particularly. You are also suggeted not to linger around for too long.
- Phography is prohibited, however tourists do take pictures and this prohibition is not strictly implemented.
- Weather is highly unpredictable. So keep enough warm clothes with you.
- Start desceding latest by 2.30 pm.
- Go in a group, it’s always helpful.