Saturday, November 22, 2014

Modi will be Pilgrim No. 1 to cross Nathula!


If things proceed to plan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be leading the first batch pilgrims over Nathula to Kailash Mansarovar as early as the summer of 2015!
Senior officials at the Tourism Department here, when contacted for an update on the proposed opening of a new route to Kailash Mansarovar in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China via Nathula, informed that things are progressing at a very fast clip and that the Centre and the State are aiming at having the first batch of pilgrims taking the route in June 2015.
Officials at the Tourism Department inform that as things stand, the plan is to flag off the first batch of pilgrims to Kailash-Masarovar from the border pass of Nathula in June next year. The Prime Minister is reported to have evinced interest in leading the first pilgrimage to Kailash via Sikkim himself. It is clearly this directive which has Delhi putting the project on fasttrack.
India and China, it may be recalled, had signed a bilateral agreement on the Nathula alternative route as recently as in end-September 2014. MoU’s are one thing, and delivery quite another and very few were expecting the new route to open any time soon. The agreement to open Nathula for border trade was signed in the year 2003 for instance and the actual resumption happened only in 2006.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of External Affairs of the Republic of India and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China on opening a new route for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra via Nathula was , signed on 18 Sept 2014 as part of 12 MoUs inked after delegation-level talks between India and China. The MoU provides for conducting the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra through Nathula in addition to the existing Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand. “The route through Nathula will augment the capacity and reduce the hardship and journey time enabling many more pilgrims in particular aged pilgrims to undertake the Yatra,” the MoU states.
Officials inform that more than 1,600 pilgrims, moving in ten batches, are expected to take the Sikkim route to Kailash-Masarovar next year. Frenetic preparations are underway to ensure that the June deadline is met, officials here inform.
Two senior officials from the Ministry of External Affairs were recently in Sikkim to examine Sikkim’s infrastructural preparedness for the new development and to finalise other nitty-gritties. They are reported to have identified two places - 17th Mile and Sherathang – on the JN Road as acclimatization centres for pilgrims.
As per a proposal floated by the MEA, the pilgrims will be required to halt at least for two days in Gangtok and then proceed to 17th Mile and Sherathang for further acclimatization before they proceed to the thinner air of the Tibetan plateau beyond Nathula.
The alternative route from Nathula will reportedly proceed through Shigatse in TAR and then move on to Kailash-Mansarovar.
Following the preliminary inspection of preparedness in Sikkim and further requirements here, a meeting is scheduled to be held in Delhi on 25 November between officials from Tourism and Home Departments of Sikkim and officials from concerned central Ministries to chalk out the finer modalities and devise co-ordinations and distribute responsibilities.
There is reportedly already an agreement to monitor the Nathula-Kailash Mansarovar Yatra on G2G [Government-to-Government] basis. Once the G2G plan is finalized, the Sikkim Tourism Development Cooperation will be shouldered a bigger role in sending pilgrims to Kailash-Mansaorvar and coordinating their travel and return to India upto Gangtok.
Meanwhile, a seven-member team comprising of State Government representatives and MEA officials is expected to travel across Nathula to Kailash-Mansarovar on a trial run in March next year. This tour is expected to provide them with an even better understanding of the feasibility and further requirements of this pilgrimage.
The Nathula route is considered a comparatively easier route to the ones currently being used. The existing routes are through Uttarakand and Nepal, and both involve heavy-trekking through grueling terrain at altitudes up to 19,500 feet. The new route will allow pilgrims to be driven all along, travelling first from Gangtok in Sikkim to Shigatse in Tibet from where they can take vans and buses on the existing road to Mansarovar and Kailash directly.
Facilities for proper weights and measures, warehouses, inspection posts, rest houses, improved transportation facilities, proper roadway, and better opportunities for traders as well as for tourists need to still be provided for further growth and trade benefits.
Sacred to Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, the journey to Mount Kailash and Mansarovar Lake located in the Himalayan mountain ranges of the remote Southwestern corner of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is usually undertaken from Uttarakhand via Lipulekh Pass or overland from Nepal.
While the Nepal route takes 10 days, the arduous trekking option via Uttarakhand takes 27 days. The Nathula option, as per projections, will take only 8 days to complete the yatra. While the Nathula route is usually open from March to November, the Lipulekh route is only open for four months in a year from June to September. Also, there is a limit on the number of pilgrims allowed to take the Lipulekh route every year. Normally there are 16 batches of 35 pilgrims each every year.

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