Gangtok: Travel planner Bimla Rai sports a smile. Bookings are once again being registered. People from far and near want to visit Nathu La and areas close to Doka La where the Indian Army and the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had a tense stand-off for 72 days.
The stand-off ended on 28 August.
Since then, tourists en route Nathu La have started trickling into Gangtok and business for Rai is picking up. “We’re looking forward to compensating our losses. The stand-off and the agitation in Darjeeling over the separate statehood demand hurt our business and livelihood,” Rai told Firstpost.
Up in the mountains in Nathu La — 42 kilometres from Gangtok where most of the Indian Army bases are located — life is returning to normal in villages such as Sherathang, Kupup and Gnathang, which are not far from Doka La.
People in Sherathang, Kupup and Gnathang — which are in the direct observation of the ‘Chinese eye’ — mainly earn their livelihood by ferrying food and other essential supplies to army bunkers on the higher terrain. The houses in Nathu La are basic structures with sloping tin roofs. Many of them have their backs to the mountains.
Indian Army soldiers remain hunkered in the bunkers through severe cold winter, which starts in earnest from November.
The supplies are loaded on sure-footed mules and carried up mountain trails by porters who hail from these villages. In fact, porters from these villages are a crucial lifeline and link in army operations.
The place itself is very beautiful with lofty ‘young’ mountains, scenic beauty and fresh air in plenty. Many residents of Sherathang, Kupup and Gnathang had left their villages after the Doka La stand-off started.
Some of the villagers also make a living by running restaurants and cafés which mostly serve local food.
During the peak tourist season, Nathu La sees as many as 300 tourist vehicles on the road. Even during the off-season, the number of tourist vehicles hovers between 100 and 150.
A driver, who ferries locals to and from points within Nathu La every day, said life is returning to as-normal-as-it-can-get in existing circumstances, and people are back to “living” again.
He said tourists are driving into Nathu La from Gangtok and are climbing up to the villages.
But the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra via Nathu La Pass on the Indo-China border in Sikkim remains cancelled. In any case, severe winter will soon set in and the mountains will be cut off for three to four months.
China had sealed the Nathu La Pass and the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra route after the Indian Army stopped the Chinese PLA from constructing a road in Doka La which is in Bhutan but is also claimed by China. For India, the tri-junction is very crucial for her national security.
A soldier of the Jat Regiment, a contingent of which is stationed at Kupup, said there is a relief now that the stand-off between India and China is over. Soldiers of the regiment were right on the frontline during the more than two-month-long stand-off.
A restaurant owner in Kupup village who did not wish to be quoted due to police presence said villagers who had “gone down” to Gangtok when the stand-off started are back and the village is “humming”.
“We’re also seeing tourists,” he told Firstpost.
The “pass-permit log book” has been showing an increase in applications over the last three to four days and the number of vehicles driving up to Tsomgo Lake, which is 10 kilometres away from Nathu La, has also increased.
A tourist from Kolkata who visited the famous Baba Mandir near Kupup village says that he had heard of the Doka La stand-off “in the news” but when he arrived here he saw that the situation was not what the media had portrayed.
“We’re having a good time,” he added with a smile.
The smiles are also visible in Sherathang, Kupup, and Gnathang. People are happy and eager to give their last shot at making some money before severe winter sets in and tourists stop coming. Drivers and porters are the happiest lots.
Nathu La borders Tibet and therefore it’s very important to keep it safe and secure. The Doka La stand-off was tense with even the international community on tenterhooks for 72 days. Nobody wanted a war between the two nuclear powers India and China.
For two months, India had pushed more troops to strengthen its position in Sikkim, in what was the longest stand-off between the two armies ever since they fought a war in 1962.
While the Indian government stood firm and kept mum for the most part, at one point of the standoff, the Chinese PLA attempted to create a diversion in Ladakh on the LAC which ended with soldiers of both armies lobbing stones at each other.
In the end, peace prevailed and the Doka La stand-off ended without a bullet fired from either side. Diplomacy won.
For the villagers of Sherathang, Kupup, and Gnathang it was time to go back to their idyllic existence.
Sujal Pradhan is a Gangtok-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.