I clambered up the last few steps, panting, not as much because of the exertion, as the altitude. At 14,140 ft. above sea level, this was the highest place I had ever been to (and probably ever will). A slight feeling of dizziness ensured that all my energies for the moment were concentrated on not falling down, and in a moment, it passed, and I was able to take in my surroundings.
We stood at Nathu La – one of India’s borders with China, and an ancient pass through which traders had frequently travelled, centuries ago. Today, the barbed wire netting clearly demarcated boundaries, and I wondered if then, so long back, there had been such clear cut boundaries too. Or had it been too far removed from habitation to need fences? What had borders then been like?
I tore myself from the past, to the present, to converse with those who secured our borders – the brave soldiers who not only fought our enemies, but did so under the toughest of conditions, so we could sleep safe in our homes. They were the stars here, and everyone wanted to shake their hands.
I looked around for Samhith, and found him sitting on one of the steps, head in his hands. This was his first ascent to such altitudes, and he too, was struggling to stay upright. His enthusiasm was low, and not even the snow nor the Chinese on the other side of the border could lift his spirits. But he came when I called, and he too greeted one of the army men, who had questions for him. He waited just long enough to answer before going off in search of a place to sit.
As I turned back to the officer, he told me that he too had a son, just about the same age. Someone passed us, heading to the warmth of the enclosed seating arrangements in a room just behind, and I asked him if we could go and sit there too. He smiled as he refused, saying that it was only for the armed forces and their relations.
Even as we spoke, his attention was diverted, towards a visitor, who had his camera out, and was clicking photographs. The officer silently pointed to a prominent board announcing “Photography Prohibited”, and very politely, confiscated the camera. The man obliged, with a sheepish smile, but he was not alone. It was only then that I noticed another officer standing nearby, who had built up a collection of confiscated cameras and cellphones, and was very politely insisting with the owners that the photos be deleted. Meanwhile, there were others all around, oblivious to the board as well as to the officers, happily clicking ‘selfies’ with their smartphones! Yet another officer was walking amidst the crowd, stopping people and collecting phones, deleting images.
Amused by the scene, I headed towards Samhith, who had found a place to sit near the barbed wire fence. Here, there was another scene in progress. A group of young people were trying to get their hands under the fence, trying to touch the snow on the other side. Even as an officer approached, one of them yelled out “Mere haath mein Chini baraf hai!” (I have Chinese snow in my hands). The officer looked irritated and fed up, but he was incredibly polite as he hustled the group away.
He saw Samhith and me seated, and requested us to move. As I tried to encourage Samhith to get up and look around, the officer was apologetic. “We can’t let anyone here, Ma’am. If one person sits here, everyone else comes and sits too, and it’s impossible to get groups to move!” he said. I said that I understood, and asked him if it was always this crowded. “Oh, it’s not really crowded today” he said. “There were more people here yesterday when the pass opened after a week. The crowds are more during the summer too.” Did people visit from the Chinese side too? I asked, and he laughed. “Ma’am, this is actually part of Tibet on the Chinese side. There are no tourists here. There are only those posted here. The only time we have civilians coming in from the other side is during the period when the trade route is opened.” That would be a great experience, I thought aloud, and he laughed again. “Only residents of Sikkim and the armed forces are allowed here, then. No tourists are allowed anywhere near!”
We had walked a little away by then, and he, spotting another tourist with a camera, rushed to intercept him. I marveled at the irresponsibility of the tourists, and came back to where we had been standing before, waiting for Shankar to join us. The officer there had just managed to make a group delete all the photos they had clicked, and, probably sensing my amusement, turned to me. “Nobody reads the board” he rued. “And they all want to photograph the Chinese and their border post.” “How do you handle it?” I asked, and he laughed. “We remind them that the Chinese are watching with powerful binoculars. That is usually enough.”
I joined in, laughing, picturing a Chinese sentry poring through the binoculars, watching the crowds of Indian tourists, clicking selfies and posing near the fence, eating popcorn and trying to see if they could touch the Chinese side. Surely it must be an entertaining sight for them, to see our tourists behave the way they do.
Continuing our conversation, I asked him if he knew any of the Chinese officers or sentries personally, since they both manned their posts, day after day, year after year. His smile was a sad one as he replied “Madam, Chini se dosti nahin ho sakti” (Madam, we can’t be friends with the Chinese)! I know he was speaking of the armed forces, of the constant disputes, and the threat of war which always hovered over the region. Yet, it was a sad thought, and one which took me once again, back into the past. What about those days when Chinese travellers came by this very pass, to learn and take back to their land, the vast knowledge that was available here? Were the borders just as rigorously drawn even then? During the time when the Mongols attacked, did they have to fight soldiers of some kingdom here, or did they simply ride past, unchallenged? Did borders even exist as we know them now?
Which brought even more thoughts, like – What is it that encourages border tourism? Do we visit borders to feel patriotism? Is it indeed true patriotism that we feel when we visit such places? Should it be encouraged at all, especially considering the way we behave in the name of patriotism?
I have already written about my experiences at the Wagah border, and my thoughts on the show put up there each evening. Now, with my second such experience at a border, I am beginning to wonder if border tourism should be encouraged at all, especially when, with the way things are going, we are going to need an army battalion to simply handle the hordes of Indian tourists!!!
What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts, whether they agree with mine or not!
Note: The photo accompanying this post was clicked from the place our car was parked, and it does not show the border at all. It simply illustrates how beautiful the place is, and, at the same time, how crowded, as you can see by the number of cars parked!