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China opens new land route to Tibet for Indian pilgrims

June 29, 2015

By Edward Wong

New York Times, June 23, 2015 - Among the high peaks of the Tibetan plateau, dozens of Indian pilgrims walked slowly through the sentry post, breathed in the thin air and continued to the town of Yadong, on the side of the rugged border controlled by China.

The crossing on Monday of Nathu La, a high-altitude pass between Sikkim in India and Chinese-ruled Tibet, signaled the official opening of a new pilgrimage route for Indians to the holy sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, considered sacred by Hindus and Buddhists. China and India recently announced an agreement to allow pilgrims through Nathu La after India had lobbied for the opening for years.

Officials reached the agreement to open the pass to pilgrims during President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September, according Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency.

Nathu La is the second official Himalayan crossing point for Indian pilgrims. The older route goes over a more arduous pass that connects Uttarakhand, India, with Tibet. The time needed for the new route is days shorter. The group of Indians that crossed Nathu La on Monday are on a 12-day pilgrimage.

The crossing was the first time that Indians who are not traders from the immediate border area had entered Tibet via the pass, which is 4,310 meters, or 14,140 feet, above sea level. One pilgrim, Manoj Aggarwal of New Delhi, told a reporter for India Today, “This is a route that is much better.”

The Indian reporter, Ananth Krishnan, had been waiting in Yadong for the pilgrims to arrive. Foreign journalists are not allowed to travel in Tibet without special permission from Chinese officials, which Mr. Krishnan had apparently gotten. Mr. Krishnan sent out a series of Twitter posts describing the occasion: “History made as first Indians to cross into China here,” he wrote

The oldest traveler, Amarlal Minda, 70, told Mr. Krishnan that this pilgrimage might be the last: “I can go to heaven happily.”

Over the next three months, five more groups will travel on the new route. China limits the number of Indian pilgrims who are allowed to enter Tibet each year. In the winter, heavy snowfall blocks many Himalayan passes, including Nathu La.

Since China and India fought a war over Himalayan territory in 1962, the exact location of the mountainous border between the two nations has been the source of fiery diplomatic disputes. The focus of the tensions is generally on the remote area of Tawang in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. China claims the area, where the local people speak a form of Tibetan, as its territory. Recently, Chinese soldiers alarmed the Indian government by crossing the border into the Indian territory of Ladakh, in the western Himalayas.

On Monday, Xinhua reported that Nathu La had been opened “to further promote religious exchanges between the two countries.” Over the last decade, 80,000 Indian pilgrims have come to Tibet, the news agency reported.

Bill Bishop, an American entrepreneur and writer of the Sinocism China Newsletter in Beijing, said he witnessed many Indian pilgrims in matching winter jackets riding on horses last August when he, his partner and their 8-year-old twin daughters did a trek around Mount Kailash. It took them three days. The trail rises more than 5,600 meters, or 18,370 feet, above sea level at the crossing of the Drolma La, the highest pass on the route. Tibetan pilgrims often walk the circuit in one day.

Mr. Bishop said that, like the Indian pilgrims, his family stopped at Lake Manasarovar and spent two nights there. He said his family members “were pretty well acclimated by the time we started, though I think it is hard for almost any non-Tibetan when you are up over 5,000 meters.”

Adam Wu contributed research.

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