Thursday, August 24, 2006

Walking Into History in the Himalayas: The Nathu La Pass

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald; August 22, 2006

In his youth, the old man tramped along Himalayan mountain trails carrying truck and car parts on his back.

He was a trader, a Buddhist entrepreneur who walked the high, lonely trails between Sikkim, now part of northern India, and Tibet.

He took apart old vehicles and carried them, piece by piece, into Tibet through passes that topped 4,200m.

One foot at a time, from the 1940s into the '60s, the trader earned his living in what was then a deeply isolated, impoverished mountainous land. As he walked across the top of the world, geopolitics swirled.

China took over Tibet, his family's ancestral land. India annexed the trader's homeland of Sikkim, once a Buddhist kingdom, that borders Tibet. After a border war, China and India shut their border in 1962, walling off Sikkim from Tibet.

This July, after Chinese-Indian hostilities waned, the two countries finally reopened the border.

With flags waving and soldiers decked out in ceremonial dress, the 4,330m-high Nathu La pass between the Sikkim and Tibet regions was reopened, after 44 years, to limited commercial traffic.

I wonder if the old trader was alive to see it.

When I met him years ago in a simple Sikkim restaurant, the trader was already elderly, a wizened man with eyes as milky as his tea. Between puffs on his hand-rolled cigarettes, he told of his youth, of walking for weeks bent under the weight of old Ford parts that he carried through various passes into Tibet.

He told of the Dalai Lama, of how the Tibetan Buddhist religious leader supposedly had a car disassembled and carried through the Himalayas to his palace in Lhasa (before fleeing to exile in India).

Today's cross-border traders will have it much easier.

Nathu La pass, an offshoot of the centuries-old Silk Road that linked Asia to Western Europe, has vaulted into the modern age.

A narrow two-lane road now snakes through the pass. An Internet cafe, proudly billing itself the world's highest, and an Indian bank have opened on the Sikkim side of the border.

Customs buildings have sprouted on both sides of the windswept, rugged pass.The reopening of the border between the two nations could usher in a landslide of change, including tourism, once the road is improved.

For now, however, access is tightly controlled. Nathu La is open only a few days a week and just to commercial traffic. There are strict limits on what can be traded, mostly a few dozen traditional items including silk, spices and animal skins. And the pass will close during the winter snows.

But some commentators envisage container trucks pouring between India and China, the world's two most populous nations, after the Nathu La road is improved.

Cross-border tourism could take off, too. Sikkim wants to start a bus service via the pass between its capital city of Gangtok and Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. The two cities are about 500km apart, and the route could be covered in a long day.

There's no word on when the pass will open to individual - and foreign - travellers. But adventurous tourists already head to Lhasa, drawn by the Tibetan mystique. And Sikkim entices travelers with its historic Buddhist monasteries and treks to high alpine meadows with views of 8,598m-high Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain.

Yet the opening of the border brings concerns, too.

Tibetans are struggling to keep their traditions alive as mainstream China engulfs the region.

A week before the border opened, China started a new train service between its major cities and Lhasa; some Tibetans fear the easier access by rail and road will further swamp their culture.

There are similar fears in Sikkim, where Buddhists have become a minority in recent decades.And now roads once again link the two countries.

What would the old trader think? I'd like to sit with him in a cafe again, hearing his tales over a cup of tea. He'd probably tell everyone to go take a hike.