Nathula Pass Excursion
Day before yesterday on return from Zero Point, I walked to SNT (Sikkim Nationalized Transport) Bus Terminal to know about the buses leading to internal Sikkim. I also enquired with a tour operator, Everest Tours and Travels about NathuLa excursion which would be the highlight of my solo trip to Gangtok Sikkim. I booked a seat in a shared taxi in INR 800 per person. The fare includes excursion to NathuLa, Baba Mandir and Tsomgo Lake and permit for which the tour operator collected a copy of my Government Issued ID and Passport photographs. The visitors have to get the permit to visit the place by applying to the Tourism and Civil Department through a registered and recognized Travel agency. Foreign nationals are not allowed to visit NathuLa (54 kilometers). The taxi will be a Tata Sumo or a Mahindra Bolero with seating capacity of ten persons (excluding driver) and I got a seat in the back of the vehicle.
It was informed that NathuLa pass is closed for tourists on Monday and Tuesday so they booked me for Wednesday. More information on NathuLa pass can be found at http://sikkimtourism.gov.in/Webforms/General/PlacesOfInterest/Nathula.aspx.
I woke up early morning and got ready to leave for NathuLa. I carried warm clothes, trekking boots, First Aid box, snacks and water. Happy to find out sun in the sky which will continue throughout the day, I left for Changu (Tsomgo) Lake Taxi Stand located in Vajra area. From Deorali I took a taxi to the Hospital and then changed taxi to Changu Taxi Stand. The taxi driver shared his concern of how political parties in Gangtok are trying to influence taxi drivers union which is at present mostly free of such influence.
I reached the taxi stand by 0800 hours and called the agency, they informed the location and taxi registration number. Since the reporting time was 0830 hours, I spent the time taking tea and breakfast at a nearby restaurant.
The taxi started at 0900 hours. A Bengali family of seven, a couple and I were the passengers of my taxi. On the outskirts of the town, at a check-post our common permit was checked. We were asked to pay INR 10 and given receipt for some kind of tax which is used for ecological development of the lake area.
Being in remote area, the road condition was poor. The road is maintained under Project SWASTIK by Border Roads Organization. After covering twenty five kilometers, the vehicle stopped at a Dhaba. It is important that one keeps in mind a possibility of suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). The best way is to consume plenty of water and liquids. I ate Maggi noodles and filled up my one liter water bottle.
Baba Mandir Nathula Excursion
We crossed Tsomgo Lake (we will visit this point on return) and reached the junction of roads to Baba Mandir and NathuLa. We were asked by the army person to visit Baba Mandir first (possibly due to crowd at NathuLa. Baba Mandir is a temple dedicated to Major Baba Harbhajan Singh, an Indian soldier.
At this time of the year, there is no snow but shrubs and plants are in full bloom all over the mountains. These shrubs paint the mountains in colors of red, green, yellow, grey and so on. The wind was blowing cold. An about twelve year old kid of the Bengali family was the one and only victim of height I witnessed. As soon as he came back from Baba Temple to the vehicle he fell down and could not get up on his own. He was lifted back into the car and given some fluids. Probably, he exhausted himself in low Oxygen environment. He was provided with gulps of water frequently and was fine by the time we left Nathula.
We saw beautiful twin lakes while going back to the Nathula pass from Baba Temple. Nathula pass, an open trading border pass located at Indo-China border, is located at the elevation of 14,420 ft above MSL. Our vehicle parked along the roadside and we walked up to the stairs leading to a pink-yellow building on the Indian side. Like many other tourists I took the opportunity to shake hands with a Chinese soldier across the barbed wire fencing on the roof. From the roof, one can see trucks passing through a large border gate. There is a canteen at 14000 feet where I had bun and tea.
The Indian Army personnel took extreme efforts to sensitize tourists of the criticality of high elevation and suggested not to exert too much, walk at slow pace and rest a lot, cover ears, nose and head properly, apply sunscreen to exposed skin and use sunglasses to protect eyes. A notice board at Baba Temple stressed that vehicles should leave before 1330 hours considering the possibility of unfavorable weather in the afternoon.
Tsomgo Lake – Nathula Excursion
On our return, we stopped at Tsomgo Lake where other tourists were clicking photographs with yaks.
Midway, we had our lunch with options of momos, Maggi noodles and fried rice. We reached Gangtok by 1700 hours. Since my return train back to workplace was just after midnight from New Jalpaiguri, I had to ruch to my hotel. I immediately packed my luggage and thanked the manager of the hotel to help me packing and left for the Mainline Taxi stand. I boarded a shared taxi which left at 1830 hours and reached Siliguri (130 kilometers) at 2200 hours. I made friends with a co-passenger who was also to catch the same train. We had some difficulty finding cheap transport to New Jalpaiguri Railway Station due to extreme rush during Durga Puja festival, we both hired an Auto rickshaw and shared the cost. Fortunately, we were able to reach there by time.
This experience of a solo trip to Gangtok Sikkim was an opportunity which allowed me to travel according to my comfort, testing my limits, trusting strangers and controlling emotions. I learned more about my habits and limits which gave me confidence to undertake such adventures.