“You are under enemy observation now,” read the signboard at the windswept terrain misted by a swirling mass of cloud and flanked by two mighty peaks on the Indo-China border between Sikkim and Tibet.
Till yesterday, Nathu La was just another tourist destination, drawing hordes from all over the country for a first hand experience of the “border and ice”.
Today the signpost has been replaced by “Qing Dao Zhelilai. Women Shi Hao Pengyou,” , which roughly translated, means “Please Come Here. We are very good friends.” Sino-Indian bonhomie is at its peak and its party time at Nathu La, teeming with journalists and government officials. Hands that once wielded guns, are preparing for Thursday ‘s carnival, when the Silk Road opens after 44 years. Roads are being spruced up, tents are being rigged and the hills are reverberating with the drone of generators, brought in to light up the icy swathe.
“I am very happy. My long- cherished dream is being fulfilled,” Sikkim chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling told the Hindustan Times on Wednesday.
In an exclusive chat with the HT, he recalled how everybody scoffed at him when he insisted that the road be reopened in 1994. “People dismissed me then. But look what’s happening now?” he said. Chamling hoped that the opening of the historic trade link will also be a watershed in Sino-Indian ties.
“We want to operate buses from Gangtok to Lhasa and start container traffic service between the two countries on this route as this is a shortage of trade route between the two countries,” he said. Lhasa, a 10-hour drive from Gangtok, is located nearly 480 km from the Sikkim capital.
According to Chamling, never before China had come this close to acknowledging Sikkim as part of India and neither was India so keen to relegate the cause of a free Tibet to the backburner as they have this time. “Now we must carry it forward,” he said. The status of Sikkim and Tibet had been a thorn in Sino-Indian ties since 1950, when Chinese troops marched into Tibet and Sikkim merged with India later in 1975. The reopening of the Himalayan pass will signal further warming of ties between the two Asian economic powerhouses.
Nathu La is a hive of activity. Indian authorities are still struggling to put things in place. “We are trying to hitch up bamboo poles and erect a makeshift rain shelter,” a senior Army officer said. Rows of pre-fab warehouses at Sherathang, the trade mart 7 km from Nathula, are yet to be completed. The Sikkim government admits that the initial five-year phase will be symbolic; a sort of a “dry run,” but a study envisions transborder trade to touch $1 billion by 2010.
The Border Roads Organisation also has a double-lane highway on its agenda by 2010. The existing 56-km road connecting Nathula to Gangtok is just a track, not suitable for heavy goods-laden vehicles.