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By Mr. Kumar ALFA
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Nathula, Where the Clouds Dwell

The biting chill was freezing my bones. This is madness….’screeched Puri, who accompanied me,jumping up and down to keep up his circulation. The rest of the group stared balefully at me from behind tightly shut windows of our two sturdy Gypsies. But most infuriating of all was the tardiness of the check post policeman who refused to accept the one set of pass that we had in our possession. Well, visiting a high altitude location in winter may not be everyone’s hot cup of tea, but I was enjoying myself thoroughly.


It all began when a group of seven dare devils, I being in charge, not only planned such an adventure but executed it too. After a somewhat hectic but memorable day of romping around the famous Rumtek Monastery, the seat of his Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa, we started packing for our final destination- Nathula. The next day–Sunday was true to its name. We woke up to brilliant sunlight and deep azure cloudless skies. Armed with passes and a song or two on our lips we at last began to ascend huddled tightly together in our two Gypsies.


We had not even covered five of the fifty-five kilometer stretch that realization struck us that we had in our possession only one set of passes. When all attempts to persuade the check post policeman failed, I relented. Securing a second set, that too on a non-working day was going to be tough!

‘Let’s grab a cup of tea’ pleaded NL. I urged him and the rest of the group to carry on while I spent a good hour and a half struggling against time and scuttling up and down to secure that elusive second set of pass. When at last I got back I found my friends had not only devoured cup loads of tea but snacked heartily on piping hot omlettes. Amidst the rattle of cutlery and swishes of the several poly packs that my conscientious friends refuse to degrade the environment with, I realized that I had missed more than a just delicious meal – it was the splendid snow smattered scenery around the check post.

On the Way to Tsomgo Lake

Now with all the permits in order, we resumed our ascent to Tsomgo Lake and NathuLa pass. The cold clear air caught every rustle of the fir, pine and juniper that swooshed past us along the meandering road. Fair weather was a gift in itself as it ensured a breath taking view of nature’s different hues. Snow-clad peaks peeked now and then from behind a curtain of blotched brown and green, innumerable ferns and wild plants nodded gently as the burden of snow softly fell to their feet and even the chattering springs seemed to be ambling lazily in their frosty beds. Snow covered houses dotted the gentler slopes and added life to the wintry beauty of the mountains. Tiny gaily coloured flags were strung together and placed all around the courtyards of the delightful cottages adding a distinctive charm and festivity to the surroundings. ‘What to these flags mean?’ asked Singh. ‘These flags are unique to Buddhism. The red, yellow, orange, blue and green are used for happy and joyous occasions, while the white ones indicate mourning. The coloured flags may be placed around the house, but the white ones are invariably strung around bamboos in a distant glen’ replied our driver. Although tempted at each turn to get down to touch every fragile structure and run the ice through our fingers, words of caution from the drivers determined to show us places in our itinerary in time and return to Gangtok before the weather finally ‘packed up’ deterred us successfully.


Enroute to Tsomogo Lake we stopped by at Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary (26 kms from Gangtok),a place famous for being home to Red Panda, the state animal and the Blood Pheasant,the state Bird of Sikkim. Although we were unable to spot any of these creatures as they were possibly hibernating, we promised to be back next summer, fuelled by the desire to behold the abundant bloom of the exotic varieties of rhododendrons. As of now we had to be content with the twitter of an odd bird and the dark mystical and snowy view of the dream forest.


Leaving the enchanted frost forest behind we embarked on a twelve thousand feet climb. As the lofty mountains moved away a glittering sapphire studded lake emerged. The huge water body blissfully basking in the winter sun-filled our hearts with an unbridled joy that brought lumps to our throats. Croaking in delight we ached to touch its clear icy blue waters. The silence was overwhelming, intensified as it was with the little tinkles of the bells that Yaks sported, loitering placidly in the adjoining slopes. With cameras clicking in unison we cleansed our souls and captured the moment.

Destination Nathula

The terrain turned hostile with rugged mountains emerging jubilant over sparse vegetation. Dwellings were indeed few and far between with tough-looking GREF labourers undertaking road repairs off and on. Sweating through a swathe of warm clothes these poor men were toiling hard, amidst the acrid smoke of the burning koltar, to ensure essential supplies to the army men perched high up in lonesome mountain posts along the Indo-China border. Well, it was getting colder and colder and shiver here and a chatter there escaped unintentionally. But the brightness of the day and scenic beauty kept us all in commendable high spirits.

Frolicking Encumberants

At one sharp turn, one of the vehicles began making strange noise. The driver was compelled to cut down on speed. When nothing succeeded, we were more than delighted to settle for an unwanted (by our drivers of course), yet welcome break. Landing on ankle deep soft and crunchy snow we discovered a roadside benchmark declaring an altitude of 13000 feet. A little beyond was an open plain ahead of which the craggy mountains rose steeply. While the driver were engrossed in repairing the vehicle, we sneaked away to get a feel of all the snow and ice. Squishing through the white blanket of knee deep snow we tumbled around, made snow battalions and used snowballs for ammunition. It was perhaps the purest from of fun that we had enjoyed for a long long time. With no sign of inhabitation or the fragile fluttering flags we felt somehow removed from reality. But that moment was broken when a bellow ‘saab ho gaya’ from the driver shattered the peace. Our ultimate destination was barely ten to twelve kilometers away.


Our journey was resumed. The final milestone at Sherathang read Delhi 1780 kms on the one side and Lhasa 500 km on the other. We were drawing closer to the historic NathuLa pass located amidst a stark alpine landscape, which served as a significant transit point in the pre-1962 silk trade route between Sikkim and Chumbi valley of Tibet. As we left behind a magnificent set of twin partly frozen lakes, we grew impatient to make that ‘final touchdown’.


At last we were there- 14,500 feet above sea level. I was feeling a little light- maybe it was the rarified atmosphere, or maybe it was sheer delight. Few of my friends found it difficult to breathe, imagine being stationed here unendingly all though the wintry months. The sun had by now begun to play hide and seek. Taking small steps as advised by the army jawans, we reached the spot visited by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1958. A commemorating plaque nearby, thus describes his visit-‘ Jawaharlal Nehru, PM of India accompanied by Maharajakumar Col. P.T. Namgyal arrived at Nathula by motor vehicle on 1.9.1958.’ On our left was the highest conference hall in the world, while to our right, was an unhindered view of the road that runs through the Chumbi valley of Tibet leading to nearest commercial centre of Yatung (25kms.),a place accessible to and frequented by Indian traders before 1962 war. As the clouds descended and the wintry winds buffeted and creeped into the chinks of our woolen armour, we decided it was time to beat a hasty retreat from this historic pass.


Walking back through the chilly and wet haze we touched the barbed wires that indicated the border. I bent down to scoop out snow from the Chinese soil. It felt the same. Some of the Chinese troops marked the movement but raised no objections. It was a welcome wind of change from the early sixties when they would regularly hurl abuses at Indians in Hindi over their public address system. A warm handshake with one of the Chinese officers drew a momentary thaw in the ‘coldness’ of our relations.


Spending a few moments huddled together with the jawans we gained a useful insight into their dedicated lives and discovered that there was a traditional swapping of mail between the two sides twice a week- Sunday and Thursday. Fortified with hot jalebis, pakoras and compulsory celine tablets we found enough warmth in us to brave the deteriorating weather conditions. As the sun hovering around slowly disappeared we had no choice but to leave the splendid gap, the famous NathLa –abode of the clouds.


Soon, packed comfortably in our two gypsies, we began losing height. Our request to stop by Tsomgo lake to enjoy its beauty in the fading light evoked guttural responses from our irate drivers. But when we mentioned a free snack at the home-joints around the lake, their toothy grins confirmed our stoppage plans. Delicious hot momos and thukpa served to us were more than awesome to put it mildly. By now Tsomgo was silhouetted against the deep inky glow of the evening. As the colours slowly faded from its bosom, another vibrant hue from young embracing couples filled the air. Desent from Tsomgo to Gangtok was slow and uneventful. It did snow a bit on the way. By and large, the clouds dictated the terms all through. All that we had gasped at while going uphill were now shrouded in a delicate veil. It was only when a sparkle or two broke the cloud barrier did we realize that Gangtok was right ahead. At the end of this beautiful day, all I pledged to do was to return once again!

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