By Debika Banerji
The Old Silk Road or simply ‘Silk Route’ found its first mention in Baron Von Richthofen’s writings in 1877. Silk Route was a trade route which linked Asia with Europe – becoming a lifeline of not only the exchange of goods and ideas but also for the interchange of cultural and religious exchanges. The route is dotted with a number of small towns and settlements that flourished as part of the trading network in the area.
Gnathang Valley (also known as Nathang Valley) is one of the frontier villages which lies at an altitude of around 13,500 feet. This village is in close proximity to the Jelep La pass, which forms one of the exit routes for the Silk Road into Tibet. The Gnathang Valley is an interesting small hamlet, nestled among the mountains which are used as pasturelands for yak herding. The geographical significance of the Gnathang Valley is notable as it has a distinctive difference in climate and vegetation which may be attributed to its elevation and geology. The Gnathang Valley is a part of the Chumbi Valley which is an extension of the Tibetan Plateau. It is composed of Darjeeling Gneiss which has formed distinctive tor like features which are observable as one moves above Gnathang Valley. The region has a lot of geo-political importance as it is close to the tri-junction between three countries, namely India, China (Tibet autonomous region) and Bhutan.
As a geographical point of interest Gnathang Village can be an ideal point of study to understand the fine line of differences that exist for a harmonious living in such adverse conditions. The various points of interest that can arise when one visits the valley shall be imbibed in the narrative.
The Gnathang Valley has a distinctive rolling plain over plateau topography which is very different as one leaves behind the mountainous hilly tracts of Zuluk. I begin my narration at the very beginning, with accounts of how we transcended the Himalayas to reach the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The Silk Route bifurcates into many sub-routes, so the exact path is difficult to trace. However, evidence of the growth of certain towns along the route is a proof of the growth of trade relationships in the past. We first stop at Rongli, a small town in Sikkim where we get our permits from the Indian Government to travel through East Sikkim. We are a group of four along with our driver, who is from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. From there on we start our ascent where we encounter the sleepy hamlet of Lingtam beyond which we take a labyrinthine route, slowly winding our way through the mountains and reach Dzuluk (also known as Zuluk), another small hilly hamlet nestled on top of a hill. This hamlet is a favorite spot for bird watchers.
The month of October presents to us clouds and mists along with rain in the evenings. The military cantonment and its helipad remind us how close we are to the international borders. Beyond Zuluk, lies the winding roads which can be viewed at Thambi View Point from where the scenery slowly begins to change. The vegetation changes, bamboo and other tropical plants become scarce. Stunted trees become common and so do different types of moss, lichen, shrubs and numerous flowering plants. Some slopes are covered by coniferous trees as we ascend, which suddenly disappear as we climb on. Rock exposures become common with gneiss bands visible in many places. Beyond the India Map Lake, which is a small lake shaped like the Indian subcontinent, the road forks out into two at Laxmi Chowk. The right hand road moves on taking you to Kupup and Jelep La whereas the left hand road descends on to Gnathang Valley.
The village is nestled at the heart of the valley beside which gushes the Gnathang Khola, a small turbulent hilly stream. It is freezing cold in the valley and our clothes feel chilly as the moving mist clings to our face and hair. Pema didi, of Pem Diki Homestay, welcomes us with a warm smile and hot tea. It is the warmest hospitality that we receive while traversing through the Silk Route towns. The cozy homestay overlooks the hills where one can spot yaks grazing at a leisurely pace. East Sikkim is famous for yak herding along with the hilly tracts of North and West Sikkim. As we move to higher spots around Gnathang the topographical features that could be spotted are the alpine meadows that favor grazing. Along these meadows there are slump scars marking the very interesting nature of the soil and geology. The most fascinating feature that could be noted is the nature of the Gnathang Khola. The river flows placidly through the valley, in many places forming an anastomosing pattern. The water stagnates on the valley forming boggy conditions on the alluvial floors. Autumn means lush greenery and fall colors kissing the mountain slopes: rust red, yellow ochers, sap greens, vivid pinks and cobalt blues, all colors of flowers and shrubs along the slopes.
As one climbs higher and moves towards Kupup, the scenery becomes more rugged. Special mention should be made of the Eagle Nest Bunkers, which is a panoramic viewpoint to see the entire Eastern Himalayan ranges. These bunkers have now been abandoned by the Indian Army but their location is of strategic importance for security purposes. On a clear day it is said that this vantage point can give a view of the entire area – from snow-clad mountain peaks to the hills far below. Distinctive tor like rock exposures become numerous as one climbs higher marking the geologic control over the area more distinctive. The gneissic rocks have been affected by freeze-thaw where the joints crack open to form these rounded structures. The last stop is the Kupup Village beside the Elephant Lake, a high altitude lake formed on a valley which is most likely a glacial melt lake.
The village has a temple and a monastery which point to the major religious practices of the people. There was a school in the village which was shut down a few years back due to the lack of students. Most youngsters need to travel to Padamchen or Gangtok for completing their schooling, while living in hostels there. The old women and men are seen to adorn beautiful Tibetan style dresses, while the younger women are seen in jeans and trousers. “The old people still hold on. The young people do not want to stay in such a cut-off place with no internet,” says Pema Diki, owner of Pem Diki Homestay where we stay. However the influx of tourists along the Old Silk Route has led to a revival of the economic condition of the people. Homestays bring in some money to the people as tourists come every year from April to November.
Three yaks are killed as the village prepares for a feast on the occasion of Dashain (Dussehra or Dasami), a Hindu festival, which is celebrated all through India. Yak meat is not frequently consumed and is reserved for rare occasions. In many places corn is being dried out in the sun, a sign of preparation for the oncoming winters. The homestays in Gnathang have interesting ways of keeping warm with stoves that are joined to the metal dining tables. Some of the locals have opened small stores to sell knickknacks to the tourists.
One of the highest points of the Gnathang valley overlooking the village is the Tukla British Memorial. This was built in the memory of the British soldiers and explorers who had died trying to defend the frontiers of the British Empire. Some graves are present along with the memorial. However, the best thing about this place is the beautiful view one gets of the entire valley.
Last but not the least, very close to Gnathang valley lies the Doklam, the tri-junction border. Military outposts are hence a very common sight in this area. What makes these mountains more shrouded in mystery is the legend of Baba Harbhajan Singh, no ascetic but a soldier who died defending the international borders. The legend speaks of Singh, the guardian angel, who saves his comrades from difficult situations and even the Chinese army have seen somebody patrolling the borders at night. His memory is an inspiration to all those guarding the frontier.
Gnathang Valley is a potpourri of a rich historical legacy where the silent mountains have remained witness to one of the most amazing places in Sikkim for its breathtaking landscapes and the warmth of the people: its geo-strategic importance in the geography and politics of this trading corridor.
 Datta, K. (2014) Tibet Trade through the Chumbi Valley-Growth, rupture and Reopening Vidyasagar University Journal of History Vol.2
 Joshi, N. (2017) Doklam: To start at the very beginning ORF Special Report 40.
Debika Banerji is a researcher and a lecturer in geography. She did her M.Phil. from Jawaharlal Nehru Univeristy and has recently completed her Doctoral degree at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan focusing on riverscapes. She is interested in cultural landscapes and can be seen prowling around Kolkata in order to capture its essence. She has published a number of articles and book chapters on Kolkata’s cultural identities locating them through various cultural signatures.
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