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Nathu La: The early years

Hao Peng, a vice-chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, has acknowledged that the reopening of the pass -- which is 4,545 meters above sea level -- will 'boost the transport, construction and service industries, paving the way for a major trade route that connects China and south Asia.'

According to Chinese statistics the pass accounted for 80 percent of the total border trade between China and India till the mid-1950s (it only definitively closed during the 1962 war).

The pass has always been a passage between India and Tibet.

Soon after Lord Curzon became viceroy of India, he wrote to London about the need 'to strike when the iron is hot.' He wanted to open the road to Tibet.

In June 1903, Colonel Francis Younghusband was dispatched across Nathu La into Tibet with a small British army of five officers and 500 troops.

On hearing about the approaching British army contingent, the Tibetan government immediately sent two negotiators with instructions to stop the advancing troops and to hold talks at the border post. This was refused by the British who continued to advance toward Khamba Dzong, the first large town north of the Sikkim border. The Tibetan representatives tried in vain to block their path. In 1904 (as in later that century) Tibet was no match for a marching modern army.

Wishful thinking, rhetoric and mantras were not enough to balance the woefully poor preparedness of the Tibetan troops. The decisiveness of the viceroy and his young colonel who had decided to force the Tibetans to sit at the negotiating table, were not easily thwarted.

To be fair to the Tibetans, one should recall their blissful ignorance of the outside world.

The 'negotiations' went on for a couple of months. Finally Younghusband decided to return to Gangtok via Nathu La.

The first days of 1904 saw a new British expedition led by Colonel Younghusband with 5,000 Sikh and Gurkha soldiers.

The Chogyal (ruler) of Sikkim, a relative of the Tibetan general who was the military commander in the Chumbi Valley, advised the latter to negotiate with the British: 'For the Tibetan army to challenge the British is like throwing an egg against the rock -- the egg could only be smashed.'

But the Tibetans were not ready to listen and were soon 'smashed'.

The battle over, something amazed the Tibetans perhaps even more than the bullets of the 'British devils'. The British officers visited the battlefield, and instead of killing the Tibetans still alive, they ordered British troops to take the wounded to the field hospital.

This is part of the legend of Nathu La and the Chumbi Valley which remained the main route not only from India to Lhasa but also from the Tibetan capital to mainland China.

Also see: Trading post: Prospects of Nathu La

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