'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Ride To Nathu La

Note: This post is about some real incidents. The names of characters may have been changed.

A clear morning in Gangtok. We get up early and walk hard to the Taxi Stand. The arrangement: a large jeep would leave at 8 am for Nathu La pass on the China border. We did our booking rather late and, as advised by our travel agent, hurry to get there and grab the front seats...

We find the jeep well before 8 but there is no sign of the driver. We park on the front seat and wait. At about 8.30, a portly, mustachioed man in his mid-fifties approaches and says: "The front seat is ours!" There is an equally portly woman with him, her hair dyed brown, face painted.

"But we were told, if we get here early, we could take the front seat." I venture.

"Look. We have specifically booked this seat... We will see!" he stops, ominously. Sensing trouble, we leave the seat.


By 9, the vehicle is full, the driver too arrives and we finally set off, Mr. and Mrs. Portly having squeezed into the front seat.

The rest of the passengers are young honey-mooners from various parts of the country. From their general talk, it's clear they are all new to Sikkim - and quite excited about going to Nathu La.


Ten minutes into the journey, Portly turns back and addresses the rest: "Hi everyone, I am Doctor Khanna from Delhi!" A young lady in the group is excited to hear that: "Oh we too are doctors!" she says, nudging her husband. "I am a physiotherapist!" declares Khanna; "and am in the army (pauses) and my brother-in-law is a Director of Police(*)! And this is my fifth visit to Nathu La."

A pause. The driver, a rather morose-looking Nepali, speaks: "All of you, please remember, we shall do our best, but if there is some block or something, we will have to return. Road conditions are quite unpredictable!"

"Why, man, are you saying such inauspicious things right in the beginning?" Khanna admonishes the driver. "If there is something wrong, I will manage it. Nathu La is army territory and this is *our* army!"


The road climbs sharply from Gangtok and Khanna begins a lecture of sorts on what lies ahead:
"Guys, this is sensitive military area. China often creates trouble. But you should see our jawans who guard the border post at Nathu La. Absolutely, the cream of the cream of Indian manhood. You know, they are from the Jat regiment, Sikh regiment, ... not one of them is under six feet in hight! ... and those Chinese who face them, not one of them is above five feet!"

"The Tsangu lake which we shall pass, is a sacred site. Lord Shiva himself used to visit the place and offer Puja"

"And you should know of Baba Harbhajan Singh, whose Mandir is next to Nathu La. He was a jawan, all of twenty two years when the Chinese attacked; he faced an entire battalion single-handedly and polished them off, you know, like Abhimanyu! Then, he disappeared somewhere there. The army does not treat him as a war casualty; he is still on its rolls, his personal belongings are still kept intact and every year, they travel to his village in the Punjab, as if he is going home on leave. And he continues to guide and help his beloved colleagues. When those Chinese are up to some mischief, he warns them in dreams; he never ever fails his men..."

We are just beginning to see streaks of snow atop hills when the jeep halts at the tail of a long queue. "There is a jam up ahead" says the driver and gets down - and disappears somewhere.

It is a few minutes before we realize that there is some serious problem ahead. I go off to investigate.

A couple of hairpin bends above, a truck carrying a JCB has broken down - and totally blocked the narrow road. About half a dozen military men stand around and discuss. I tentatively approach a Jat-looking soldier (he is tall, a tick over six feet) and ask: "Saabji, how long will it take?"

"Nothing can be said." he says pleasantly "The truck can't move unless the JCB is taken down. There is an army camp a few kilometers ahead and a relief machine is on its way. So, hopefully in a few minutes,..."

I stay. A few workers are piling up rocks and soil next to the truck. The soldiers, many more in number than them, watch; a couple of dozen stranded tourists have collected and they too watch. Half an hour on, there is no sign of any 'relief machine' from higher up. I go over to another soldier (the tall Jat is not to be seen now) and ask him about the situation.

"Somebody is saying we the army are not doing anything. Can you not see that we are working hard?" he responds.

"Sure Saab" I answer.

"Anyways, these coolies (he points at the toiling gang of workers) are making a ramp for the JCB to be moved off the truck. Then we will see!"

The tall Jat soldier reappears briefly, gives me a smile and watches. A short while later a stout and well-decorated armyman appears and calls out: "Mahinder, let's go back. This won't get over anytime soon!"; the Jat gallops over and a few minutes later, I see him start up a car in the queue with the decorated armyman in it and make a u-turn and go off...


To summarize, watched by over a score armymen and over twice that number of tourists, the four or five workers took well over an hour and a half to set up the ramp, a driver got on to the JCB and with considerable skill and a dash of luck, got the lumbering brute off the back of the truck. Whew!


Our journey continues. A fellow-traveler wonders: "Man, if this road link is so fragile, what will happen if there is a war?"

Doctor Khanna says: "Arrey, don't underestimate our army. We can give those Chinis a pasting!...(pauses) yes, but there are some handicaps. Like, you know, our minister is a lungi-wallah!"

"Who are you referring to?" the hitherto silent painted woman asks.

"Arrey, that Anthony!" says Khanna. "These fellows, they go everywhere in a lungi, whether to office or a war-zone or to the UN, they have zero sense of perspective! So how can they possibly understand what the hell the army is for? Defense minister it seems!"


A military camp appears. I see a board in English letters and hear myself reading out aloud: "Pathomabathe, Vetri Namathe(**)! Hey, Madras Regiment!".

"Have you not heard enough? Why don't you just keep your southie-ness to yourself?!" I hear a sharp admonition and fall silent.


Flakes, then lumps of snow begin to speckle the grass on either side of the road. More army camps,... The ascent continues,... And here are proper snow-fields, "10000 feet above Sea level", "11000 feet..." boards declare.

At a military camp, Khanna tells the driver: "I am hungry. Stop at a shop!".

"Sir, you won't get anything here" he says.

"Hell, you never stopped anywhere!" Khanna thunders. "All day we have been starving. There was that bloody jam, and now you won't stop. Stop, let me check."

"No, no, let's proceed, we are already late. Uncle, please..." a chorus of voices from the passengers.

There is anyways, no shop visible. We move on.


Tsangu lake hurls into view, hemmed in by snow-blanketed hills, half of its surface covered by a vast slab of ice. A solitary cloud is seen rising from its surface (or has the cloud just dipped down from its heavenly path to replenish its stock of water, as Kalidasa(?) said somewhere?).

The car stops. The honeymooners get busy taking snaps. Khanna shuffles in the direction of an eatery which lies about 20 steps down from the path. I ask the driver: "How much more to Nathu La?"

"One more hour" he says. "But we have no time left; so enjoy here and we will go back!"

"But that is not enough!" I protest. "... Okay, if we leave just now...?"

"Hmm, we can make it. But Saab has gone to the hotel to eat. So..." he trails off.

I approach the honeymooners and inform them of the situation. "Let us call Uncle back!" tells a bride. Her husband and another in the party move off in the direction of the eatery.

I watch from afar as a conversation, first casual, then animated, then pretty heated ensues down in the eatery. "Amit, Amit!" a bride calls out imploringly. The young men return and they have a talk with their women who now proceed towards the eatery.

I ask 'Amit'. "What's up?"

"That old scratch has ordered some trash and won't move it until he has had his fill. I even asked him "if you are tired, we shall quickly go over to Nathula and get back!" and know what he started threatening us: "I challenge you, if you dare to leave us here, go. But I will fix you proper. And I will get the driver's license canceled!" And he told me: "You are young but keep your stupid attitude to yourself!" Attitude it seems, bloody a*****e!"

I confine myself to: "your description of him is very saatvik"; and as we wait, I can helplessly sense blood beginning to hiss and seethe within my skull ....

The brides retreat. "He is adamant!" they say. "Auntie too pleaded with him but... Now let us wait".

10+ minutes, I see the couple get out of the eatery. Khanna takes a further 5 minutes to haul his massive frame up the flight of 20-odd steps. Amit looks away and spits vigorously on the snow.


40 more minutes spent skirting progressively thicker snow deposits and we are halted by a military checkpost just 2 kilometers short of the frontier. "Nathu La closed for the day!" the Driver says "We can turn and go to Baba Mandir"

Baba Mandir, at almost 14000 feet above sea level,in a snow-bound setting, is a well-visited shrine. It is suddenly cloudy and extremely chilly; but sunbeams slant onto the snow which glows golden - and the odd crystal shimmers...

Nearby, a Buddhist-style military shrine stands atmospherically atop an icy, desolate hill, prayer flags fluttering against a cloud-laden sky.

While returning, we pause for half an hour at Tsangu and take more snaps and drink some surprisingly good tea at the same eatery where Khanna had his meal. I experiment with pouring some boiling tea over my painfully numb fingers - and it works like a charm.

The driver comes over to me and asks for my name and phone number. I ask: "What for?"

"I may need you to speak on my behalf. That man is threatening me saying because of my prompting, you spoiled his meal so that he will lodge a complaint against me to somebody high up and get my license scrapped!"

I answer: "Don't worry. He wont do anything!" Amit, who has been listening, butts in: "And he simply can't do a thing. Bloody fool, if he acts smart, we will..." he trails off, perhaps chewing down the rest of the sentence.


During the entire return journey, Khanna stays silent. Exception: one of the brides is distributing cookies. "Uncleji.." she makes an approach. "No!" Khanna declines the offer monosyllabically.

(*) I was reminded of the movie 'Utsav'; a flabby and mustachioed Shashi Kapoor declares loudly and repeatedly - "Hey, I am Sansthanak, and I am the King's Saala!"

(**) That means "The Nineteenth. Victory is Ours!" in Tamil


  • At 9:54 AM, Blogger vinod said…

    Dear Nandha,

    I am Vinod From Chennai. I would like to know about your trip to Nathula Pass. When did you visit and can you let me know what all places in Sikkim you have visited.

    I recently read about Nathula Pass in a blog. I am planning to Visit this place for my Honeymoon. I would prefer June - August 2010.

    Can you let me know:
    Whether any hotels in Nathula Pass?
    If not, which is the nearest Hotel and the Fare for a Double Room?

    Some Undiscovered Places to visit in nearby Gangtok, where we can Visit and return back to Gangtok.

    We like Cold Places much. Can u let me know which is the Year around coldest place in Sikkim.

    Can you advise me with the staying. Like whether we can actually stay in Gangtok for 4-5 days or can we stay in other spots where we visit.

    Cost of private taxi or jeep (for us alone) to visit Nathula Pass from Gangtok.

    How Much is the cost if share a jeep (for 2)

    Nathula Pass Timings and when its open.


    Thanks in advance

  • At 11:03 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    july-august is rainy season in sikkim and it may not be a good time to visit.
    as far as i know, gangtok is the best place to stay in sikkim and there are several decent and good hotels. nathu la is a day trip from there; the rates vary depending on season/off season. a permit is needed for going to nathu la and it is probably easiest to book the trip with the help of the hotel staff.
    overall, feb middle and mid oct-november appear to be the best time to be in sikkim. the place is not very expensive compared to other hill stations.

  • At 11:15 AM, Blogger vinod said…


    Any Idea about the Nathu La Permit Charges?

    How much was the cost for jeep to visit Nathula any contact numbers?


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  • At 11:26 PM, Blogger phantomlover said…

    I am planning to visit Sikkim in October this year, and while doing random searches on the net, came across your blog. Very nicely written, especially the details of Khannaji. Its a pity that you guys did not kick the butt of that old fart. I know these Punjabi types - tough on the outside, but chicken shit inside.

  • At 4:19 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks phantom, for visiting.
    wish you a nice time in sikkim. october should be great weather-wise and kanchenjunga-wise; but as far as i know, the tibetan new year and dances happen in feb.

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