Amandeep Menda, 70, and 27-year-old Nancy Naik were both equally excited to step inside China from Sikkim for the final and most important leg of their Kailash Mansarovar Yatra.
"My parents had done it. So I want to do it too,” Hyderabad-based physiotherapist Naik said, her tired but bright eyes barely visible under a thick, woollen cap.
They were the oldest and youngest of the 38 pilgrims and one liaison officer from the foreign ministry– in addition to the the five support staff -- who crossed over to the Chinese side of Nathu La, called Nai Dui La in Tibetan, under the enthusiastic supervision of Chinese officials and the watchful eyes of the military.
This was the first batch of Indian pilgrims to continue their journey to Kailash, some 1500 km away, through the new Sikkim route. Till now, 18 batches of 60 Indians undertook the journey through the Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand every year between May and September, trekking through tough terrain.
Most pilgrims were above 60 and it was icy cold and overcast at Nai Dui La, located at around 14000 feet. But their enthusiasm and fervour for the oncoming journey seemed to drown their fatigue.
The batch of pilgrims contained both wide-eyed first timers and Kailash Mansarovar veterans. Rajendra Prasad, a retired doctor from Agra and his wife both said it was their "dream journey" and Delhi’s Manoj Agarwal said he did the journey six times before.
But on Monday morning, as young Tibetan women garlanded him and fellow pilgrims with the traditional 'khada', he was ready for his seventh.
"This is an easy route. Unlike through lipulekh (in Uttarakhand), we will not have to undertake a seven-day trek. This is better," he said, adding that each of his six trips was like "going to heaven".
At around Rs 1.80 lakh per person, travelling via the new route costs Rs 30,000 more than the older one. But no one was complaining.
"This has better facilities. It (the cost) does not matter, "KR Kamath from Bangalore said.
Indians pilgrims on the Chinese side of Nathu La. (HT Correspondent)
The agreement to open the new route was reached between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. “The Nathu La route for Indian pilgrims to visit Kailash Mansarovar will become operational in June. I want to thank China for that,” Modi said in Beijing earlier this year. The ministry permits over 1,000 pilgrims a year in 18 batches.
Bharath Das from Madhya Pradesh in his attire of a “sadhu” attracted attention from the curious among the Chinese officials and media who had gathered at the border post.
Tarun Vijay, BJP Rajya Sabha MP who was among the pilgrims, gave a speech after crossing over to China about the new route opening a “new era" of Sino-India friendship.
In all, the Indians will spend 11 days in China including the time to circle the holy site. The rest of the journey to the site and back to the Nai Dui La will be done in buses.
Chinese authorities said best efforts had been made to facilitate the pilgrims' progress.
"For improving the infrastructure facilities and the ability of customs clearance on the Nathu La pass and upgrading the traffic conditions, reception facilities and medical aid, a package of measures have been adopted to ensure the smooth launch of today's opening ceremony and the safe trip of Indian pilgrims," Dong Ming Jun, vice chairperson of the Tibet autonomous Region (TAR), said while inaugurating the new route.
In fact, the Chinese ambassador to India, Le Yucheng indicated that the Chinese government was bearing a chunk of the cost for the Indian pilgrims.
“We are providing subsidies. The fee is very low. There is almost no profit,” Le told Indian journalists.
“The new route through Nathu La is in addition to the existing route through Lipulekh Pass and is motorable, making it easier for pilgrims, especially the elderly, to go to Kailash and Mansarovar, " AK Kantha, the Indian envoy to china said in a message read out to the pilgrims.