No sooner I stepped outside the vehicle and started walking I started feeling dizzy, suddenly everything started slowing down and everything felt so confusing. My wife had walked ahead and was asking me to hurry up but all these seemed so much in slow motion. Actually, this was my first experience with AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness. Not everyone falls victim to this but somehow I am quite prone to it. AMS mainly occurs at 2400 meters and we were at 4300 meters at Nathula Pass.
I don’t mean to scare you, this differs from person to person and while I was breathless I saw some jumping and doing push ups so do not worry just maintain some basic discipline and you will be absolutely fine.
The day had started early for us, we were supposed to report to the taxi stand at 7 AM and we were there right on time. To travel to Nathula you would require a permit which needs to be done in advance. We had already given two copies of passport sized photograph and a photocopy of ID with address proof each and booked a shared jeep to Nathula. If you are not comfortable in travelling in groups you can opt to book the entire vehicle also. We had also instructed that we would take the front seat as the view would be the best from here.
Temperatures at Nathula can be dramatically different from Gangtok thus plan accordingly, wear inner thermals and take additional warm clothing in bags which you can put on later. Carry woollen gloves and caps, if visiting during snowy conditions then UV protected sunglasses are a must. Carry some chewing gums and pop corns as these help in clearing blocked ear drums due to change in altitude. Avoid having heavy breakfast as the route takes you round and round churning your tummy quite a lot.
All the rest of the group had all arrived in time and by 7.30 AM we departed towards Nathula. The rest of the group consisted almost all from Gujrat, in fact, it’s on record that over 30% of the tourist that travel around the country are from the state of Gujrat.
After travelling an hour we were giving our first stop at Kyongnosla Waterfalls. This waterfall falls from quite a height and during the rainy season the water gushing down can be quite enthralling view. This was a much-needed break since it gave us an opportunity to stretch our legs and also get acclimatised with the change in altitude.
Our next stop was at a market from where you can rent out warm clothes, if you do not have enough warm clothes with you then you must hire as you will surely need them. There are quite a few tea/coffee shops here and a hot cup of coffee is surely recommended. All the shops out here have attached toilets for its guests thus refresh up as much possible as the next stop will be directly Nathula Pass.
The scenery changes dramatically from here, almost no vegetation are present and only bare rock peaks can be seen all around. The winding roads take you past series of army barracks with embedded Haubits (BOFORS) FH77 Howitzer Artillery Guns all pointing towards our friendly neighbour.
At a distant hill, you can see the words “Mera Bharat Mahan” written and as we close to our final destination we can see it getting bigger and bigger. This is actually quite huge and I wonder who painted this on the hillside.
By now the roads are getting quite narrower and often getting covered in clouds. Sometimes there will be a bright blue sky with unlimited sunshine and the very next moment the sky would turn dull grey with clouds all around you. Since we were inside the vehicle I could not fathom how cold it was outside, the moment I touched the windscreen I could feel the bone chilling cold.
Finally, we reached an army checkpoint where we could see series of other tourist vehicles in front of us. Our driver took all the permits to the check post and got it cleared. Then we waiting patiently, for the next fifteen minutes there was no activity but just waiting. On enquiring, I was told by our driver that the army would give the final go-ahead signal since a large army convoy was coming down and they are given priority clearance.
Once the convoy passed we were given the go ahead to reach to our final destination Nathula. It took us nearly twenty minutes to reach all the way to the top. All the tourist vehicles park their vehicles at a designated spot and one must walk the steep roads and finally reach a spot where there will be a staircase that takes you to the actual Indo-China border.
The moment I stepped out I could feel the altitude taking over. I would suggest to take it step by step, if you feel difficulty in breathing then do not rush take deep breaths and walk slowly, it’s not a race and the drivers give enough time for this stop. Take the stairs one by one and in no time you will reach the top.
The temperature by now was below zero and even though it wasn’t snowing but frozen water could be seen all around. It’s just a barbed wire which separated India with China and there are no neutral no man’s land here. The Chinese guards are friendly and will readily pose with you for a photograph or just shake your hand.
The Chinese guards will try selling you Chinese currency in lieu of 100 Indian Rupees. I would recommend you not to fall for this trick as these are fake and not real Chinese currency. I fell for this trick and later realised that I was handed some currency note for God knows what.
There is a monument here dedicated to the fallen soldiers and also a symbolic hammer challenging anyone to lift it up and try breaking a piece of rock symbolising the hard work put in by the soldiers to build this place. Don’t even bother trying to lift up the hammer as the high altitude and low oxygen will make it more challenging than you can ever imagine.
There is a Café out here managed by the army and stopping by is a required and not optional since the cold temperature combined with high altitude will surely make you want to try some hot tomato soup or some hot coffee. Just for fun, the army has installed a PCO from where you can make free STD calls to your family and tell them that you are calling them from the highest PCO on earth. You can also get your certificates from here confirming that you have been to Nathula but this is a paid activity and you need to stand in the queue as many people line up to get their copy.
Next stop for the day trip was at Baba Harbhajan Singh Mandir (Temple). Harbhajan Singh was a soldier of the 23 Punjab regiment and had died in the year 1968 while trying to lead a loaded mule column, he slipped and fell into a river meeting his end. Legend has it that he had come to the dreams of the very people who were trying to recover his body and directing them to build a shrine. The legend also has it that Baba Harbhajan Singh warns the military personnel of impending danger in advance. This belief has made this shrine into a must stop by visitors and army personnel.
The shrine has photographs of Baba Harbhajan Singh along with his suitcase and other symbolic belongings. Judiciously every year Baba Harbhajan Singh (his photograph and suitcase) symbolically is sent back to his hometown for vacation and also have been officially given promotion even after his death.
On certain days during the week a puja is held and Prasad in the form of puri and halwa is distributed amongst all visitors. The day we visited, unfortunately, was not the day thus missed this.
It is also to be noted that this is not the original Baba Harbhajan Singh Temple but the second and the new one. The original one is actually located on the Silk Route (East Sikkim) and not on the high tourist trail.
The next stop for the day was at Changu Lake or Tsomgo Lake. The appearance of the lake differs depending on the season when you are visiting if its winter then this lake will be frozen else rest of the year you will see the clear water from the melted snow of the slopes.
If you want to do some shopping like buying woollen products hand made by the local community then this is the right place, alternately you can also buy Chinese made winter clothing at a very cheap rate. The best bet would be to buy some souvenirs like a key chain, stole etc.
Another interesting thing that you can do out here is to ride on a Yak, yes I mean those mountain bovines. These are gentle creature if tamed but there are bouts of madness and just a week before our arrival a couple was thrown into the lake when they were just enjoying a short ride. This, however, did not stop us from experimenting and we took turns to get ourselves photographed. But at one point the Yak did give out a loud growl and I definitely was about to jump.
The last and the final stop for the day was Mandakini Waterfalls, it’s just a pit stop before finally reaching back to Gangtok but the clear green waters would surely make you want to take a dip, however, this is not recommended.
By the time we reached back to Gangtok, it was evening and we were extremely tired, so much so that we skipped dinner and slept all the way till next morning.
I hope you have enjoyed travelling along with me through my blog to places around Gangtok in my previous blog and Nathula in this blog, see you in my next blog where I will take you to North Sikkim – Lachen and Lachung.