Nathu La is a famous tourist spot in Sikkim by virtue of its location on the Indo-China border. It is also on top of a peak which gives you a view of a part of the country that is more ambitious than India: China. There is a road that leads directly to Nathu La from Gangtok, a distance of less than 60 km. Unfortunately, that road was closed when Maggie and I were on the tour reportedly due to its bad condition. Nathu La itself was closed to visitors for reasons related to security. Maggie and I were deprived of the pleasure of taking a look, however brief and partial, at the country that has attacked our country more than once and has many a trick up its protean sleeve. But we did travel as close as we could to the Indo-China border.
Maggie and I got a private tour operator to take us to the border through another route which first climbs down from Gangtok to Rongpo and then starts crawling up a rugged path (as good as a trekking track) to Rongli from where begins a steep ascent with 32 hairpin bends. Instead of the usual 60 km from Gangtok to the Indo-China border, we travelled just double that distance on this zigzag route. There were two drivers in the Tata Sumo apart from Maggie and me. At Rongli they stopped for a beer and brunch and asked us to eat something since we might not get anything to eat till evening. We had vegetable momos (they were the only things we could find appetising in the whole place) and a bottle of mineral water. We bought another bottle of water for the road, not really foreseeing how creepy the journey would be.
The Tata Sumo negotiated each bend dexterously. Our driver was excellent. The second driver drove only for a short while on two occasions and I thought he had joined us only to whet his driving skills on a challenging route. Was he putting our lives at stake? However, I told Maggie that we were lucky to have two drivers like they have two pilots in aeroplanes.
As we were negotiating the last few of the 32 hairpin bends some huts came in sight. I was surprised to find human habitation at such an altitude and such low temperature. Maggie asked the driver why these people lived in such a place. He said they worked for the Indian Army helping it to construct or maintain roads and buildings. Soon we reached Kupup at an altitude of about 16000 feet.
There was a couple of other Tata Sumos parked there already; Maggie and I were not the only tourists who ventured out on this trip. A soldier from the Indian Army greeted us with a smile that was at once punctilious and effervescent. Having asked us some introductory questions he directed us to a temple situated at a height of a few metres: the top of the cliff.
Our driver had told us it was the Bunker Mandir, though he had added that whatever we wished for in that temple would come true. The signboards told us that it was Harbhajan Singh Mandir. Soon we learnt that it was a temple made by the Indian Army in memory of a soldier named Harbhajan Singh who had disappeared from that cliff while on duty. After his death he appeared to some other soldier in a dream and expressed his wish to have a memorial for him. And thus he became another deity in the 33 crore-strong Indian pantheon.
The memorial did not look like a temple at all. Our driver’s description was more accurate. It was a bunker. There was Harbhajan Singh’s picture in every cell of the bunker and a donation box in one of the cells. In one cell there was a large office table with a swivel chair, pens and other stationery items kept neatly on the table which I thought was exaggerating the whole affair since Harbhajan Singh was only an ordinary soldier who could not have been offered such a luxury at such an altitude especially. But religion is all about exaggerations. There were offerings made to God Harbhajan Singh below on the roadside both in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. There was a donation box at the roadside too. There was free tea and hot drinking water for the ‘pilgrims’. The dutiful soldier came to us again as we descended from the ‘bunker mandir’ asking if we needed any medicine for any discomfort experienced due to the altitude.
We saw the Indo-China border from Kupup. We had seen yaks grazing freely a few hairpin bends down. We had seen the shabby huts of Indians who worked for the Indian Army. A few kilometres ahead of the Harbhajan Singh temple we saw the properly built quarters of the Indian Army’s soldiers and felt proud of our country. We saw the real bunkers [in contradistinction with the bunker mandir] built on the mountain. We saw the mountain range which was laden with landmines in anticipation of an aggressive move by our ambitious neighbour. We saw the place where the Indo-China Border trade takes place in seasons stipulated by those who benefit by such trades. We saw the world’s highest golf course. We also saw the holy lakes along the way. And there was also an ATM operated by Axis Bank. The Airtel mobile phone had full range at that height.
Our driver said we could try the short cut to Gangtok instead of going down the 32 hairpin bends which would be covered with mists in the evening. I gladly agreed and requested him to reach us back to Gangtok as early as possible. Our Tata Sumo hurtled down a path that one would have feared to walk.
A few kilometres, a few hairpin bends, a few gasps from Maggie and me later our Tata Sumo was halted by another that came from the opposite direction. There was a landslide and it would be cleared only in another five days. No way ahead.
Our driver did not even wait a moment. He found a place to turn around. My suspicion was aroused. “Should we believe that information? Can’t we try going ahead?” I asked. “I know the people here,” said my driver. “I know this route. I drive on this route every day.” I did not utter a word. After all, I thought, no driver would want to drive 140 km instead of 30 on a misty mountain road for fun.
We reached back Kupup. Our Tata Sumo stopped a few kilometres down from Harbhajan Singh mandir. “Sir, want to eat something?” our driver asked.
“Maggie, wake up,” I said.
“Magi, four plates,” shouted our driver into the hut. “Do you want vegetables in Magi?” he asked me. He had misunderstood my wake-up call to Maggie.
“As much as possible,” I said, “and make it soup.”
Our driver ordered a beer for himself and his companion. I moved out to find a place for the most basic call of nature. It was then that I realised my fingers had gone numb. My fingers couldn’t feel anything, not even the zip of my fly. I went back to the hut-restaurant. Its signboard said that it had a license to sell liquor. I ordered a peg of Royal Challenge. Drinking Royal Challenge in a hut-bar at a height of 16000 feet in the Himalayas is a rare luxury for a school teacher, I thought as I unzipped my fly facing a granite rock on a rising mountain.
There are wine shops all over Gangtok. You will find them at every 100 metres. Alcoholic drinks cannot be got cheaper anywhere in India than in Sikkim, I think. But I didn’t find a single drunken person walking around anywhere in Gangtok or any other place in Sikkim. I wanted to know more about that.
“Your neighbours have such a lot of problems,” I asked the driver. “How come you are such a peaceful and contented state?”
“Sir?” he said.
“Look at Darjeeling, for example,” I explained. “They are unhappy with their state government and are demanding a separate state. There’s always trouble there…”
“Oh, that,” said the driver. “They have a large population and small area. We have a small population and large area. Moreover, we obey what we are told. If we are told not to litter the public places we won’t… There’s no corruption among us.”
He did not encourage me to speak more. The mists had set in and it was going to be an arduous job driving down the 32 hairpin bends.
I sank down into the silence that I had acquired with much effort in the last few years of my job as a teacher in a school that labels free speech as criticism and criticism as evidence of lack of character.
“Sir, why don’t you go to sleep?” asked the co-driver as the mists became thicker and the sky became dark. The driver was busy wiping the windshield with a piece of cloth though the windscreen wipers were at work outside.
“I have to keep awake for the sake of one person, the most valuable person in my life,” I said.
“Madam,” the driver addressed Maggie, “what do you think, am I a good driver?”
“You certainly are,” said Maggie.
She was right. Nobody could have driven on that blind road with so much confidence except a thoroughly experienced driver. Our driver had even overtaken a couple of Tata Sumos that were groping through the mists.
How did the driver see through the mists? I kept on wondering. Is that what they call management?
I could understand the other drivers, however, those who allowed our driver to overtake. That’s what they call the trick of the trade. Those who don’t know their trade allow others to overtake and then follow them. And perhaps succeed.
Maggie and I fell asleep when our Tata Sumo reached below the hairpin bends and the mists had cleared. Past 9 o’clock we were woken up by our driver. “Sir, your hotel,” that’s all what he said.
Maggie and I were exhausted by that trip and exhilarated too. There’s something in the mountains that mesmerises us. It’s certainly not the Bunker Mandir or any other spiritualist trap that beckons us. It’s the challenge of the mountains to go on climbing. I wish we could climb it by foot and not by a Tata Sumo.
Note: You need a valid identity card to travel to Kupup even if you are an Indian citizen.
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