A new and less arduous route for Indian pilgrims travelling to Kailash and Mansarovar in Tibet through the Nathula Pass in Sikkim is likely to be open between June and September, 2015, AK Kantha, Indian Ambassador to China, has said.
The new route via Jalpaiguri and then Nathula will cut down travel time and ensure that pilgrims do not have to make a tough 50 km- trek on the Indian side because of lack of proper roads, Kantha told HT.
The Indian ambassador returned to Beijing this week after a rare nine-day tour of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) with twin aims: one, to operationalise the new route by the summer of 2015 and look at ways to expand bilateral land trade through the Nathula Pass.
Jiang Jie, Vice Chairman of the Government of TAR, accompanied Kantha on the tour.
Only two other former Indian ambassadors – Shiv Shankar Menon and S Jaishankar – have been allowed by the Chinese government to tour TAR in recent decades.
The Chinese government does not allow diplomats and foreign journalists to visit TAR without permission.
According to Kantha, the Chinese are quite keen to operationalise the alternative route and were making preparations to build new accommodations with adequate facilities along the new route for Indian pilgrims.
It will take a few months before facilities were upgraded, Kantha said, as it was almost impossible to work during the winter season in sub-zero temperatures of the region; concrete, for example, takes more than 45 days in Tibetan altitudes to firm up.
Annually, around 18 batches of 60 Indians undertake the journey through the Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand every year between May and September to the region in China considered sacred among Hindus.
Only Indians are allowed on this journey, which is coordinated between India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the government of TAR. The pilgrimage was resumed in 1982 following its suspension after the Sino-India war of 1962.
On the issue of expanding trade through the Nathula Pass, Kantha said it was more about ensuring that traditional linkages of those living on either side of the border continue to remain. Kantha said trade officials on both Indian and Chinese sides were keen to expand the list of articles that are currently traded – around two-to-three dozen – between the two countries.
Interestingly, Kantha during the trip was probably the first Indian official in decades to be allowed to visit Yadong county located between the dagger-shaped, narrow strip of land in TAR between Sikkim and Bhutan.
The last time was 1958 when former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira spent a few nights at an Indian trade office building in Yadong on their way to Lhasa through Bhutan. Chinese officials showed the building, now renovated after an earthquake, where Nehru stayed to Kantha. It is shut now but apparently things that Nehru used during his stay including chopsticks that he used to eat his food have been preserved.