Kailash Mansarovar Yatra New Route | Chinese Strategy

Shailesh Kumar
New Delhi, 04 June 2015

Beginning June 8, China opens up a new Kailash Mansarovar Yatra route via Nathu La in Sikkim ducking India’s demand for opening up easiest and safest route via Demchok in Ladakh. The new route is no less treacherous than earlier Pithoragarh one. Experts believe China has strategic designs behind this move as opening Nathu La grants easy access to chicken neck, the Siligudi corridor. To reminisce, the Chinese military advanced just over 100 km cutting off Bhutan, part of West Bengal and North-East India during the war between India and China in 1962.

“2015 is a watershed year for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. For the first time since its resumption in 1981, the Yatra will be conducted through two routes. During External Affairs Minister’s visit to China from January 31 to February 3, 2015, the two sides formally exchanged notes on modalities for Yatra via Nathu La which has made it possible for Yatra to commence via Nathu La beginning June 8, 2015”, reads a press release issued by Ministry of External Affairs following the maiden visit of external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, to China.

Years after 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nathu La pass was re-opened in 2006 to implement bilateral trade agreements between the two countries.

Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, visited China from May 14-16 where he signed 24 agreements with his Chinese counterpart and said, “The Nathu La route for Indian pilgrims to visit Kailash Mansarovar will become operational in June. I want to thank China for that”.

Kailash Mansarovar Yatra via Lipulekh 
(Pithoragarh is the old treacherous route) 
But this was more a shocker than joy for many Indians, who had been demanding opening up of Demchok route for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. As earlier, in a memorandum submitted to Narendra Modi on August 12, 2014 Rigzin Spalbar, Chief Executive Councillor said, “Demchok in Ladakh provides the easiest and the safest access to Kailash Mansarovar. From here the pilgrims can approach the holy mountain and the sacred lake in two days. This would also give the much needed flip to the local economy”.

“Opening of Demchok for cross border trade on the pattern of Nathula Pass in Sikkim will not only boost the regional economy but would go a long way in fostering Sino-India relations”, Spalbar added in his memorandum.

But China seems to have moved by their strategic goals while India neglected its own defence and strategic concerns.

“They (China) are developing western Tibet. They are making infrastructure, road and everything… may be they don’t want Indian pilgrims come that way because it is very shorter than Nathu La… Nathu La is a very long road. Ladakhis have also asked many a times. NSA (National Security Advisor) has taken the issue with them (Chinese) but I do not know what is the reason they are giving; may be some dispute on the border itself because in Demchok, may be, one small village they are claiming and like that. So, I don’t know what is the excuse they give for choosing Nathu La but before Ladakhis have asked (for Demchok) many times”, explains Claude Arpi, the renowned Tibetologist.
On opening of Kailash Mansarovar from Ladakh, Spalbar even explained history in his memorandum. “The Mansarovar Lake locally known as “Tsomo-Mapham” has historical and spiritual tangible bond with the people of Ladakh since the time immemorial. Buddhists associate Mansarovar with Anotatta Lake, where the Buddha was mystically conceived. The lake has few Buddhist monasteries on its shore”.

“The Buddhists as well as Hindus and Jains consider Mansarovar Lake and Mount Kailash one of the holiest and most sacred pilgrimage place in the entire world. The Buddhists of Ladakh had a long tradition of visiting Mansarovar Lake till 1960 when Chinese occupied Tibet”.

“Till 17th Century, the Mansarovar Lake and Mount Kailash were part of Ladakh kingdom. A village called Menser near the Mansarovar was a revenue village of Jammu and Kashmir State upto 1960. In 1954, late Kushok Bakula, the then Minister in J&K Govt. visited Mansarovar Lake via Demchok village along with a Judicial Clerk of DC office Leh, Sonam Khangsar and reportedly collected revenue tax from Menser village for J&K State”, CEC narrated lesser known history.

“As you would be aware, the Ministry of External Affairs, Govt. of India organize every year Yatra to the holy lake and Mount Kailash via Lipulekh Pass route (Uttarakhand) and Nathu La route (Sikkin) involving trekking at high altitudes upto 19,500 feet, under inhospitable conditions, including extreme cold and rugged terrain covered in 23- 25 Days in total, where as the holy lake is only two day far from Leh, with a very easy route without encountering any major pass along the route”, CEC, LAHDC requested to the Prime Minister.

Letter to J&K Chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed by CEC,
LAHDC, Rigzin Spalbar demanding opening of
Demchok Route for KMY
Rigzin Spalbar also approached J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to raise the voice of Ladakhis, “The opening of Kailash Mansarovar route from Demchok is a persistent demand from the people of Ladakh since last many decades and has been relentlessly taken up with previous Government at Center. Opening of this route will act as a catalyst in the economic and overall development of this region and will give a new dimension to the trade Pilgrim and tourism sector in the State. Moreover, long lost historical and spiritual relations will be revived on the same pattern as your gracious self have endeavored to open ties with people on the other side of border”.

As per the sources, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had requested President Xi Jinping to offer an alternative to the Lipulekh pass in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra (KMY). Either Demchok in Ladakh, or Shipki-la in Himachal Pradesh was expected to be the new port. But China was more interested in opening Nathua La route.
Now, this year the KMY will be conducted during the period from June 8 to September 9. There will be 18 batches of 60 pilgrims each on the existing route through Lipulekh Pass in Uttrakhand. The first batch will move on June 12 and the last on August 19. They will finish their Yatra on July 3 and September 9.

The Five batches of 50 Yatris each will be able to utilize the newly opened route via Nathu La in Sikkim beginning June 17. The first batch on this route will return on July 05. The last batch will move on August 4 returning on August 22.

The new route would be through Gangtok, 15th Mile, Sherathang, Kangma, Lazi, Zhongba, Darchen, Qugu, Deraphuk, Zunzhul Pu, Zhongba, Lazi, Kangma, Sherathang, and back to Gangtok.
The older route pass through New Delhi to Almora, Dharchula, Sirkha via Jungle Chatti, Gala via Lakhanpur, Budhi, Gunji via Chialekh, Navidhang via Kalapani, Taklakot via Lipulekh Pass, Darchen via Manas, Rakshas Tal, Deraphuk, Kailash Parikrama via Yam Dwar or via Dolma, Zunzhui Pu, Qugu and return back using the same route.

“As for me, Sikkim route to KM is just another option for those who are unable to go on foot via Uttrakhand route. But to think that the route would be easier is not true. Imagine covering a distance of around 1400 kilometers in vehicles through Tibet for several days, its not going to be a comfortable, smooth ride. However, for a country like India, having one more route to the most difficult pilgrimage is more than welcome. Though, I highly doubt that the new pilgrimage route to KM was ever used for this purpose”, says Alka Kaushik, a travel blogger.

“Trading caravans, travelers and even nomads have been going from silk route via Nathu La for centuries but as far as pilgrimage to the Shiva’s abode is concerned, this is an unconventional route. Our sages, ancestors, ascetics have never crossed into Tibet for pilgrimage from Nathu La though as many as a dozen routes through high passes in Himachal (Shipki la) and Uttrakhand (Mana, Niti etc.) were used by them for the purpose”.

“As such, I will never get the feeling of ‘following my ancestors’ footsteps while going from Nathu La though the same thought is enough to overwhelm you many a times while going to seek Kailash darshan on foot alongside roaring Kali river in Uttrakhand”, intensely emphasizes Alka.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had promised opening the new route for the Yatra to Modi during the former’s maiden visit to New Delhi in September 2014 and the two sides had agreed to work closely to ensure smooth commencement of the pilgrimage through the new route. But what transpired that Demchok route was withheld perplexed many strategists.

By opening Nathu La, the trekking has been reduced from 212 km to 36 km including at a height of 16,600 feet during the parikrama of Kailash Mansarovar. While it will take 22 days for Yatra via Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand; the Yatra via Nathu La will save at least 3 days.

The Yatris spend about Rs. 85,361 on Chinese side out of total expenditure of Rs. 1,44,531 that means a Yatri spends Rs. 59,170 in India.

“From Nathu La  there is already trade going on since 2006, so for them it is not an issue and also they are making more money via Nathu La because it (Yatra) takes one more week so the people will stay more in Tibet for longer haul and thus they will make more money” adds Claude Arpi.

Experts delineate the route to Kailash Mansarovar Yatra via Demchok as the safest and easiest as on this route no trekking is required. To reach Demchok, Yatris will first get to Leh then cross the Chang La pass to make descent to Tangtse village. Indian army keeps Chang La pass, situated at an altitude of 17585 feet, open all through the year. From Tangtse it’s a pleasure trip to Pangong Lake. Hereafter, Yatris will reach Chushul. On route falls the Major Saitan Singh War Memorial. The Yatris can reach to Demchok via this easiest route in just three days. Following this, the road in Tibet is very good and it will take less than two days to reach Gartong by the Western Highway G 219. From Gartong it takes a day to reach Kailash Mansarovar via Purang in less than a day’s time. That means the Yatris can complete their one side Yatra from Leh in just 6 days without tracking whereas via old route or via Nathula the Yatra will take more than two months.

“They site only reason for not opening Demchok route for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra being the border not being demarcated. We expect from Narendra Modi ji that as he opens the Nathu La route in single visit, if Demchok route is opened, the Yatra will be easy. The roads are good; only a bridge need to be built on Indus river. There is a need to change the thinking. Equally, it is important to open the route for trade. There have been illegal trades happening even now”, says Ladakh MP, Thupstan Chhewang, who is also a member of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence.

Perhaps, the one reason why Chinese have set up tents in Demchok area during the visit of President Xi Jinping in September 2014 adds to the complexity as why Chinese are not in favour of opening Demchok route.

Chinese Tents set up in Nelung Nala area of
Indian Controlled Demchok are yet not removed by China

“Demchok is a strategic area so they would not want that pilgrims should visit the area owing to security considerations. Their forces may be deployed, they may be having cantonments, so they would not like pilgrims to go crossing the area”, explains Ambassador Ranjit Kalha, foreign affairs expert.

As per experts, China considers Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal, Bhutan and Nepal as part of its ‘five finger policy’ (new buffer against India) while considering Tibet as ‘palm’ (old buffer).
For China, Sikkin is important even today. To enter India, China considers Sikkin as entry point. Once in Nathu La, China easily gets access to Chicken neck or the Siligudi Corridor. That is perhaps the reason why Indian Army has a larger presence in Sukna. Hence, is it not a pertinent question that by opening Nathu La India is falling in the Chinese trap? China has attempted excess in Sikkim earlier too. During the face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in Chumar (Ladakh), China had built a 200 meter long road in Sikkim, which was later destroyed by Indian Army. This happened at a time when both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping were showing bonhomie during later’s visit to New Delhi.

Cutting Chicken Neck or Siligudi Corridor
would separate entire North- East from India (Google Map)

“Total North East border is about 5200 kilometer and Indian land border is less than 2%. And you see that this connects to Chicken Neck, which you also call as Siligudi Corridor. If this is cut, then North East gets detached from India. This is strategically important”, says Brigadier V. Mahalingam. From Nathu La in Sikkim, the chicken neck or Siligudi corridor in West Bengal is just over 100 kilometers.

Opening of KMY route via Nathu grants easy access
 to China in Sikkim (Google Map)
Strategists believe that China’s both highways G 318 and G 219 run parallel to Indian border from Arunachal Pradesh to Lhasa and from Lhasa to Kashgar respectably. China is building vertical artillery roads to connect with Indian border with both the highways. This move can facilitate and lends strategic edge to China for a lightning strike on India in a hostile situation. Building of Highway G-209 by China was the major cause of Sino-India 1962 war.

China’s Highway G 318 runs parallel with
India’s border in Arunachal Pradesh (Google Map)

China is perhaps also worried by Indian efforts to form a mountain strike corps, having its headquarter in Panaghat in West Bengal, not far away from Sikkim.  In view of this, China has started building Lhasa- Shigaste railway line. It is speedily working on Shigaste- Gyirong county railway line, which has checkpoint connecting Nepal and with Yadong county, bordering India and Bhutan. Yadong County trade center and Gangtok trade route was opened in 2006. In this backdrop, opening of KMY route via Nathu La seems more driven by Chinese strategic interests than just as a friendly gesture.
Kailash Mansarovar Yatra New Route | Chinese Strategy Kailash Mansarovar Yatra New Route | Chinese Strategy Reviewed by Shailesh Kumar on 10:43:00 AM Rating: 5
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