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November 30, 1999 atimes.com
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India/Pakistan

India-China military checkpoint becomes latest tourist spot
By Sujoy Dhar

NATHU LA - Closed since the 1962 border war with China, this snow-bound, high-altitude pass is turning into a tourist destination as bilateral ties thaw.

Since September, some 200-odd tourists have been making their way up the motorable road every day to the 14,000-foot high pass to wave at Chinese border guards and take in spectacular views of the high Eastern Himalayas. Many, starting with Sikkim's Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, hope that before long tourists will be able to cross Nathu La and make the two-day drive to Lhasa, capital of Tibet.

This month, Chamling called upon the central government in New Delhi to initiate a bus service from Gangtok, Sikkim's capital, to Lhasa on the lines of the recently inaugurated bus routes between Lahore (Pakistan) and Delhi and Calcutta and Dhaka.

Nathu La (the pass of the listening ear) has for centuries been the natural gateway for herders and traders into the scenic Chumbi valley, a wedge of Tibet between Sikkim and Bhutan. Many traders in Gangtok remember a flourishing cross-border trade in wool, machine parts and tea carried over on mule-packs supervised by resident trade commissioners on either side.

But the 1962 war changed all that and for the next four decades, Chinese and Indian soldiers have been staring at each other across the wind-swept pass. The border is patrolled round the year by Indian Army soldiers and junior officers who brave the rarefied air and thick snow to conduct arduous night patrols.

''The border is supposed to follow the streams but in winter everything freezes over and it is not uncommon for herdsmen and even patrols to stray,'' says an Indian Army officer.

For tourists a visit to Nathu La can be thrilling. ''You are under enemy observation now,'' warns a signpost on the winding 50-km road up from Gangtok. The hard-fought battles of 1962 may be a distant memory but the road to Nathu La is alive with military convoys, camouflaged pickets and the roll of big guns in target practice.

At Nathu La tourists are greeted by the ''the world's highest conference hall'' built by the Indian Army to accommodate the regular meetings that are now held with Chinese army officers.

Nathu La has also been the scene of a curious exchange of mailbags twice every week by postmen who carry them across the opening in the barbed wire as soldiers watch. Without the exchange of mailbags, a letter from Calcutta to Lhasa, 850km as the crow flies, would take months and would have to be routed through Delhi, Hong Kong and Beijing.

Says Keshub Chandra Pradhan, former chief secretary of Sikkim, ''If instead of mailbags, travel agents could send over some of the thousands of foreigners who visit Sikkim each year, it could mean tremendous benefits for the tourism industry in the region.''

In 1993, the two countries signed an agreement to ensure ''Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control'' and a Joint-Working Group has since been working towards ironing out many hard issues.

China has also made it known that it would consider formally recognizing Sikkim, historically a vassal of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, as part of India.

The opening of Nathu La to visits by ordinary tourists is considered a significant development given that, earlier, they were limited to trips up to Tsomgo lake - 15km short of the pass.

Nathu La remains a sensitive border post and the army still forbids the use of cameras and tape-recorders at or near the pass. Tourists and journalists can expect to have film removed from cameras or micro-cassettes from tape recorders if they attempt to speak to troops stationed there.

According to tourism sources in Gangtok, the opening of Nathu La has been good for their business. ''We are making some money and hope that the trips will continue,'' says Surendra Pradhan, general secretary of the Travel Agents Association of India.

But he also warned that ''these changes can go on reverse if relations between India and China deteriorate.''

(Inter Press Service)



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