Nathu-la (East Sikkim), June 29: The sound of tinkling bells breaks the silence of dawn over the Himalayas. Icy winds whistle past the tall peaks and slap the weather-beaten faces of the tired men leading the mule trains, sometimes 500 long, through Nathu-la, 14,000 feet above sea level.
The mules, decorated with hundreds of tiny silver bells and laden with 2-maund (80 kg) sacks of musk pods, raw Tibetan sheep wool, silk, brocade, zee (precious Tibetan stones) and dayangs (Chinese silver coins), are on the last leg of their arduous journey from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet about 426 km to the northeast, to Gangtok.
Indian businessmen, mostly Marwaris settled in Sikkim, wait patiently for the Tibetan traders at Chandmari ground on the upper reaches of the Sikkim capital.
As soon as they reach, the merchandise is unloaded and the mules are led away to rest and feed on maize and peas after the fortnight-long journey.
But the traders get busy. The goods are weighed and haggling begins. No money changes hands, barter is the preferred method of trade.
In exchange for their wares, they take manufactured consumer goods, ranging from biscuits to motor vehicles in knocked-down form.
Even the dayangs are traded — as silver. “The dayangs, popularly known as Chinese dollars, used to be brought in gunny bags. The traders checked the purity of the silver by listening to the tinkle of the coins as they fell after being tossed in the air,” said a senior Sikkim official, whose father was among the top British officials posted at Gyantse, a Tibetan trading post about 280 km from Nathu-la.
The last of the mule trains came in 1962. “The trade came to an abrupt halt in 1962 with Indo-China relations souring. Old timers say that, initially, with the coming of the Chinese to Tibet in the early 1950s, the trade had received a boost. With China on a construction spree, Tibetan traders were asked to bring in more building material with the consumer goods,” said the official.
Forty-one years later, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s recent agreement with China on border trade through Nathu-la has rekindled hope for the route. But none of the romance, like barter, is likely to endure.
“Rolex and Omega watches, too, used to be exchanged for musk pods (from which musk incense is extracted) by weight and not by numbers. Since a mule could take a maximum load of 80 kg, all goods were bartered in 2 maunds,” the official said.
“Once the barter was over and the mules were rested, the caravan started on its return journey. The mule train moved out at the crack of dawn, slowly making progress up from Gangtok. The Tibetan traders liked to cross Nathu-la early in the morning when the weather was clear,” reminisced octogenarian Chiranjilal Khatri, one of the few Indians who had managed to travel with the mule trains right up to Lhasa in August 1956.
Indian traders were issued permits only till Yathung — about 15 km into Tibet — or the major trading post of Gyantse. A British Trade Agent was responsible for all trade matters between India and Tibet. After Independence, an Indian took over the responsibility.
The first stop on the journey to Tibet is either Chhangu Lake or Sherathang, some 5 km below Nathu-la.
The next stop will be down the mountain at Chubithang, about 4 km from Nathu-la. Yathung is the first major Tibetan trading post. From there it is a slight climb till Pharidzong.
The rest of the trail passes through the undulating Tibetan plains with no sign of any habitation or vegetation till one reaches Gyantse.
“The route down from Nathu-la to Yathung is breathtaking. While the scenery till Nathu-la is stark and rocky, the descent into Chumbi Valley brings one to lush green meadows, thickly wooded forest with the Yathung river bisecting it and flowing into Bhutan in the east,” said the Sikkimese official.
The splendour of the route was captured “painstakingly” for posterity by Bhaskaranand, son of Sriram Munjal, who had set up the Indo-Sikkim Trading Company, during one of his many trips from Gangtok to Gyantse.
Fishing out 15 cans of 16-mm film from an old tin trunk in the family’s attic, Bhaskaranand’s son Umesh sets up a 1957 Bell and Havel 16-mm projector to run the film, which though crusty with age, takes viewers along the route.
“We had several properties at Yathung, Pharidzong and Gyantse. But months before the Indo-China war, we had to leave everything behind and come back to Gangtok,” regretted Umesh.
Perhaps, sooner than later, he will be able to retrace the tracks of his father and grandfather.