A trip that will stay with us for a lifetime – Nathu La
My son had read about Nathu La in school. This was on my have-to-visit list and help him appreciate the tough conditions our defence personnel live in, day in and day out, to keep us safe and free. The other important agenda was for my children to get up close and personal with snow – for the first time ! So, I had my fingers crossed, while our travel agent applied for permit, while we were exploring Gangtok. It had been raining the last couple of days while we were there and I was slightly apprehensive. Getting the permit was like a prayer being answered (was it the spinning of prayer wheels in the monasteries effect ?). Little did I realize that I will get more than I wished for 🙂
We left the hotel around 9 am. Navigating the rugged terrain, sharp rocky cliffs and some non-existent roads – not to mention less than 5 meter visibility at times, it was an exhilarating experience.
On the way we saw many lakes, some partially frozen. The most prominent and breathtaking was Tsomgo Lake
1) Tsomgo Lake, also known as Changu Lake
Located at 12,313 ft and 38 kms from Gangtok and a 2 hours ride away, this lake with its ethereal beauty is a sight to behold. The name Tsomgo means ‘Source of water’ in Bhutia language. The lake is snow-fed from the surrounding mountains and is 15 feet deep. It is said that the lake looks different depending on the season. In winter the placid lake remains frozen flanked by snow clad surroundings while in late spring the flora and fauna around it add riot of colors.
It is a lake sacred to the Sikkimese and there is a Shiva temple and prayer wheels near the lake to prove it. It is believed that in olden times, Buddhist monks would forecast the future by studying the color of lake water. On Guru Purnima, Jhakris (faith healers) of Sikkim gather here to benefit from the healing qualities of the waters.
About 200 meters away from the lake, there are stalls serving snacks and beverages. You see plenty of colorfully decorated yaks around – ride them or pose with them.
2) Nathu La Pass
Continuing our journey onwards, we headed towards Nathu La. Nathu La, located 54 kms from Gangtok, is one of the two open trading border posts between China and India; the others being Shipkila in Himachal Pradesh. Sealed by India after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nathu La was re-opened in 2006, after 44 years. The pass is at 14,140 ft above sea level and is a part of the ancient Silk Road. It is also one of the highest motorable roads in India.
Some views of the landscape enroute
Our driver informed us that this is the main place for India-China trade via Nathu La
As we started our climb towards the border at Nathu La, we were filled with awe and admiration for the Indian army soldiers, who brave the elements to protect the borders and keep us safe. It was windy and cold and it had started to snow. Yes, this was the little extra sent our way ! The first snowfall my children ever experienced.
The climb was getting slippery and my daughter’s boot got stuck in slush and her feet got wet and was numb with cold. So, we took shelter in a small café in the snow, while the husband and son went ahead. They came back glowing with pride and a wee bit more patriotic, having shaken hands with the Indian soldiers and saluting them for their sacrifice. It was an experience, my son says, he will always remember 🙂
3) Baba Mandir
Visit to Nathula pass in incomplete without a small detour to “Baba” Harbhajan Singh mandir. This makes for such a riveting story. Harbhajan Singh was an Indian army soldier who died near Nathu La Pass. Legend has it that after he went missing patrolling the border, he appeared in a dream of fellow soldier and requested that a monument be built in his memory. The soldiers of the Indian army built a shrine in his honor at an altitude of 13123 feet, which has now acquired status of a pilgrimage center of sorts.
In the mandir (temple) premises – a camp bed, his polished boots and uniform is kept ready every night. The sheets are apparently reportedly slept in every morning and boots muddy by evening ! There is also a strong belief that water offered to Baba gains healing property and turns into sacred water overnight that can cure all ailments when consumed within 21 days.
It is believed that Baba still patrols the international border at night and the Chinese army has also confirmed seeing a man on a horse patrolling the border. He safeguards the force by communicating via dreams of army men and foretelling any threatening activity on the border.
My take ? Still the same – makes for an absolutely riveting story.
- In general summer April-May is a good time to visit Sikkim, though there could be intermittent rains. During September – October, the weather would be clearer and you can see distant mountains in Bhutan from Nathula ! The landscape would not be as stark and you could experience the myriad vegetation in the state.
- Stock up on popcorns, as the locals suggested they help pop ear blocked at high altitudes. Not sure if it’s really effective, maybe its just the constant chomping and swallowing, not to mention keeping the kids busy :). It just worked for me !
- If you have breathing or other health problems, do see a doctor before the visit. With low oxygen levels due to high altitude, it’s best to be prepared.
- Keep medicine for high altitude sickness handy, post consultation with your doctor. Also carry sickness bags with you and lot of wet wipes for any eventuality.
- Just before Tsomgo Lake, there is a settlement where you can pick up warm clothes, boots, gloves, caps and replenishment.
- Tsomgo lake is open for both Indian and foreign nationals, however foreign visitors have to be in a group of two or more and have to apply for a visitors permit through a registered travel agency.
- Plan to leave Tsomgo Lake by 3 pm as the weather in the afternoon usually becomes inclement.
- Citizens of India can visit Nathu La pass on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday – only after obtaining permits one day in advance in Gangtok. Foreign nationals are not permitted to go uptill the pass. The pass can get closed in winter (November onwards) due to heavy snowfall.